THE concept is "as old as the hills," says Hattie Pender, manager of a senior citizen's home here. Help a neighbor, and then a neighbor will help you.
Only now, in 80 communities across the country, this form of volunteering comes with a title, a coordinator, a computer system, and a $15,000 to $120,000 budget, depending on location.
The mechanics of the Time Dollars program are simple: A church, hospital, or other organization sets up a computer network of volunteers. When people need help, they call a program coordinator, who then assigns volunteers interested in performing the tasks. Volunteers report their hours and get credits they can later draw upon when they need someone to perform a volunteer task for them.
Services range from baby-sitting to home repair to sewing lessons. Whatever type of work the volunteer does, one hour of service equals one hour of credit.
* When a bachelor in Milwaukee fixes an elderly woman's garage door, his payment is having his torn pants pocket sewn.
* When pre-teenage girls in St. Louis read to senior citizens, the favor is returned by other Time Dollars volunteers who give the girls rides to the mall or the movies.
* When participants in Brooklyn build up enough service credits, they can swap them to pay for part of their annual health-insurance premium.
"It's a win-win situation," says Edgar Cahn, a professor at the District of Columbia Law School, who initiated the program. "You can look out for yourself by looking out for others."
Funding for Time Dollars comes mainly from community grants and organizations like United Way and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Last month, the United States Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Aging agreed to grant $300,000 for three new Time Dollars programs.
Professor Cahn came up with the concept of Time Dollars while lying in a hospital bed in 1981. "I was feeling useless and not liking it," he says. After his recovery, he approached hospitals and social service organizations about adopting his method of volunteering.
By 1987, Time Dollars programs were launched in Miami, Brooklyn, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, and St. Louis. Now 28 states, plus Japan and Sweden, have recruited people of all ages and cultures to become Time Dollars volunteers.
Some Time Dollars programs have succeeded in crossing difficult race barriers.
"We have Cubans who don't speak English helping blacks who don't speak Spanish," says Ana Miyares, executive director of the Miami program. "Yet they shop together because the Cuban has transportation and the black doesn't."
Perhaps the most common reservation about Time Dollars is that its give-and-take approach takes away from the spirit of volunteerism. "We feel that the basic tenet of volunteer service is not receiving a quid pro quo," a Red Cross official testified in 1987 at congressional hearings for funding of volunteer programs.
But Mr. Cahn points out that Time Dollars has brought hundreds of people into volunteer work who were never involved before. "To say this corrupts the spirit of volunteering doesn't make much sense," he says.
Nor is there much evidence of altruism being corrupted at the Robert L. Walker House for Senior Citizens in southeastern Washington.
Take Maxine Smith, who was active in the building's program until she broke her hip two years ago. Unable to walk without assistance, Ms. Smith used up the credits she earned long ago. But volunteers in the building keep coming to Smith's second floor apartment, to help her fix her breakfast or to see if she needs anything from the store.
"I don't pay it any mind," says Aldine Hawkins, of Smith's inability to participate anymore. Ms. Hawkins, who is an active Time Dollars volunteer, so far hasn't used any of the thousands of credits she has earned.
Most of the senior citizens don't give much thought to the formal rules of the program, which is coordinated by a nearby hospital, says Ms. Pender, manager of the Walker House. Many even forget to log in their hours on the hospital's computer.
"When people start decorating it with fancy [names and systems], they don't understand that," she says.
What they do understand, she says, is that volunteering makes them feel good.