Before he got the text, Jacob Levy had never volunteered.
In late June, Levy, a 28-year-old who lives in Baltimore, got an offer through his Virgin Mobile phone about a new program that traded coveted VIP tickets to Sunday's sold-out Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion for community service hours.
"I jumped on it," Levy said.
Levy was one of nearly 3,000 people who earned tickets - and some VIP passes - for the Columbia festival by volunteering their time. They gave blood. They put together hygiene kits for homeless youths. They even helped remodel a storage room at a domestic violence center.
"Our goal was to take people who don't usually do community service and get them out there," said Ron Faris, Virgin Mobile's senior director for brand marketing and innovation. "We knew the sold-out Virgin Mobile FreeFest would get them off the couch."
At most music festivals, concertgoers can man concession booths or pick up litter for a free ticket. But a festival-sponsored community service program of this size is virtually unprecedented, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the trade magazine Pollstar.
"I've never heard of anything like this," Bongiovanni said. "It's much easier to do a free show and give the tickets away and not worry about it. This actually made more work for [organizers]. ... I hope it proves to be a model other people will follow."
The project was split into two arms: The Summer of Service, headed by Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, and Faris' Free I.P. program. The Summer of Service handed out close to 2,000 tickets, through Red Cross blood drives and other projects. The rest (about 1,000, Faris said) went to the Free I.P. program, which focused on youth homelessness.
Organizers set up Web sites with lists of available volunteer programs. Free I.P. asked participants to log at least 13 hours of community service, and rewarded them with VIP passes. For the Summer of Service, the number of hours varied depending on the project, and volunteers received general admission tickets. All told, the volunteers tallied tens of thousands of community service hours, Faris said.
"We were blown away by the number of people who stepped up to donate their time to the cause," Faris said. "It's not just the number of people who volunteered their time, but the speed in which they volunteered their time."
Levy didn't hesitate to sign up for the Free I.P. program. A former drug addict who spent a year in prison on a second-degree burglary charge, he was working as a supervisor and floor manager at Helping Up Mission in East Baltimore when he heard about the program. He had already gotten two general admission tickets , but he was lured by the offer of VIP passes - and the prospect of helping kids. He didn't anticipate just how much time and effort he would end up devoting to Free I.P.
After scanning the list of volunteering options (such as planting a garden at a Washington youth homeless center), Levy decided to put together hygiene kits - Ziploc bags filled with toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash and floss. He and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lang, originally agreed to assemble a minimum of 13 kits each, which would go to the local youth charity Stand Up for Kids.
Levy and Lang asked for donations from friends and family and accepted samples from area dentists' offices. Once word got out about their project, supplies rolled in, he said. And his own goal shifted from trying to earn upgraded tickets to wanting to help homeless kids.
"It spread like wildfire," Levy said. "We got into it for the VIP tickets, but once we saw what it was all about, we weren't even focused on tickets. Tickets were tickets. This was for the kids, and this was what I wanted to do for the community."
Between the two of them (and with some help from Levy's mother, Mary Tanya), Levy and Lang assembled 964 hygiene kits, which they boxed and delivered to Stand Up for Kids. Levy estimates they spent four to five hours a day for several weeks on the project. Stand Up for Kids only expected to get 400 hygiene kits out of the drive. Levy and Lang delivered more than double that figure by themselves.
"Their car was packed with all the stuff they had," said Shubhika Dhawan, executive director for the Baltimore branch of Stand Up for Kids. "We're all really grateful. I'm sure there are tons of kids out there who will thank them."
From time to time, the American Red Cross will offer small incentives such as T-shirts or pints of ice cream in exchange for blood donations. They're more common in the summer months, which is generally a slow time for donations. When Ulman's office approached A. Ray Charles, senior account representative for the Red Cross' Greater Chesapeake and Potomac Blood Services, with close to 1,000 tickets to one of the most in-demand local events, Charles was floored.
"It could not have come in a better time - in mid-July, in the heart of one of our most-needed months," he said. "[Tickets] went quite quickly."