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Blog post by Reed from Washington, DC

When I was 15-years-old there was only one thing stood between me and the rank of Eagle Scout.  This high distinction in Scouting is marked by the completion of a Leadership Service Project where candidates must conceptualize a project that will benefit their community and then successfully manage a team of other Scouts in order to complete the task.  I chose to organize a region-wide food drive to collect non-perishable items and donate them to an organization that would ensure that they would reach individuals and families in need.


After reviewing potential benefactors to receive the collected food, I chose New Hope Ministries (NHM) – a Christian social service agency that provides assistance to community members in times of need and supports their efforts toward stability.  My project resulted in thousands of donated items.

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In addition to food, NHM needs toiletry items and financial donations to finish their kitchen and add a chair lift to the 2nd floor.

Goose bumps wisped over my skin as I walked into their new facility 22 years later.  I was in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania helping my father recover from knee surgery and I took a few hours off to go and help NHM out.  I was scheduled to be folding letters and stuffing envelopes for an appreciation dinner the organization will hold in June for all the volunteers who have helped NHM achieve their goals throughout the year.

Every single person I had contact with there was delightful.  Kindness flowed freely from every staff member with whom I interacted – Joanne, Molly and Sue – as well as my two follow envelope-stuffers – Brenda and Silvia.  The work might sound boring, but the three of us had a lot of fun.

DSC_0024.jpgAfter two hours of folding and stuffing and successfully avoiding paper cuts, Sue Fornicola, the program manager, kindly offered the three of us a tour of their new facility.  It hardly resembles the building I had visited as a teenager.  I think the most impressive areas were the food pantry and the food warehouse.  It is a very professional operation.

Although it’s easy to be distracted by the well run food pantry, NHM is much more than just a pantry.  They also provide:

  • rent/mortgage assistance to prevent homelessness
  • prescription, medical, dental and eye care assistance
  • utility assistance to prevent termination of service
  • transportation assistance
  • counseling
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I like this photo. It was hanging in the room where we were stuffing envelopes.

But what I discovered through my time at NHM is that their real gift to the individuals who walk through their doors is something far more valuable than bags of groceries or assistance paying rent.  They give people the love and support that they need to pull themselves up.  They give them hope.

Click here to donate to NHM

Click here to volunteer with NHM

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-Blog post by Mike B., a Kindness Investor from Cromwell, CT

It occurred to me that when I first agreed to be a Kindness Investor, I should have some kind of a plan going in to my week of giving.  Who would I give to?  How would I choose?  Would I get it right?  How was my pre-rehearsed speech going to sound?  After much thought, probably too much thought, I thought I’d follow Reed’s lead and just go with my gut.  And it’s worked out for me so far!

In the beginning of this project for me, the week itself was a bit out of sorts.  It started on a Wednesday after all.  What week starts on a Wednesday?  Mondays had always started my work week for 22+ years, but hey, I’m flexible.  Of course since I’ve been unemployed, it’s more or less the same thing, except now Mondays are usually good “interview days”.  The interviewer is usually a little more alert then the rest of the week and I’m a bit more on my “A” game.  I’ll bet someone has done studies on this somewhere.

Cromwell Library

But as I didn’t have an interview today, I was able to spend a little more time in the library. I almost forgot how useful and resourceful libraries are!  My local one has been a tremendous help in my unemployed days.  I could work on my computer at home (and do), but in the library, there’s more chance of getting work done.  And the librarians are extremely helpful as well.  This library day was a good day for me, as it was where I met Pamela, the recipient of today’s $10.

Pamela is an unemployed nurse, or rather a nurse that just happens to be unemployed.  She’s from Middletown, CT and has been a nurse for 29 years, most recently working for the State of New York in the disability area she said.  I was in the Cromwell Library on a computer and she was in the next seat over.  However, I was busy perfecting a cover letter while I was there and didn’t get the chance to talk to her.  It seemed to be a busy day in the library as no sooner did she get up and leave, someone else sat right down and started doing their own internet surfing.  My time was up on the computer (they give you an hour) and I was done with the cover letter, so it was time to find my recipient of the day.  I headed over to where the newspapers were and there Pamela was to my surprise, with many forms in front of her.  She had very light blond hair which stood out to me, and I knew, or I hoped, she was the one for today.

She looked very busy, but when I asked her if I could talk to her, and told her I would be brief, she graciously said okay.  She lost her job with the state of New York nine days ago and she was working like a mad woman to make sure she wouldn’t be out of work much longer.  She had all kinds of applications and forms in front of her to fill out, and she continued to do so as I spoke.  She had been a nurse for 29 years and had seen quite a bit through those years.  She mentioned that when the State of New York started to issue mandatory furlough days, she knew her time there was coming to an end. She said she worked all different shifts as a nurse and I wanted to ask more, but her mind was definitely on filling out those forms.

I asked if she could do it all over again, would she still be a nurse? Her answer was “Yes, that’s what I know how to do.”  But after thinking a little more, she said, “Maybe an X-Ray technician or something else in the medical field.”

When I asked her what she would do with the $10, she said it will help paying for sending more forms out!  She was headed to Kinko’s next, to fax all the forms to an office in Boston where I’m guessing she was applying.  Faxing is a $1.50 a page at Kinko’s, so that adds up she said.  We discussed what a profit Kinko’s was making on that, but as I was speaking I saw Pamela not lift her head up once and I had that feeling of she wants to be left alone to finish her work!

I asked to take her picture, but she preferred not to have it taken.  I did get to tell her why I chose her, telling her I saw her at the computer and felt this was a woman with a purpose.  I guess I was interrupting that purpose, so we said our goodbyes and I left her and her forms.

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After being unemployed for 285 days, I have a special connection when I give my $10 to someone out of work.  According to data released by the US Department of Labor yesterday, unemployment has risen to 9.8% from 9.6% where it had hovered since August.  That represents 15.1 million people who can not find work.  The good news is that we are slightly better off than we were in 2009 at this time when there was 10% unemployment which accounted for 15.4 million people out of work.

Phiona is one of the 15.1 million people searching for work in this country.  She has been unemployed for five months now.  Back in February I recall that the average duration of unemployment was 7.5 months.  I tried to find what it is at now, but couldn’t find an updated statistic on this.  So if she is an average case it will probably be February before she finds another job assuming the rate has stayed similar.  It’s tough out there.

She wants to do project management work for nonprofits.  In addition to her experience in disaster management and post-conflict reconstruction, she did a fellowship at UCLA and got her master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.  She sounds like she is prepared.

Speaking of being prepared…this 28-year-old was certainly prepared when I ran across her talking on her cell phone at the top of the Metro escalators at Dupont Circle.  She had a colorful umbrella next to her and opened that up just as the rain began to pick up – it had been drizzling lightly for a while.

She was quite weary of my intentions at first and asked not to be photographed – even when I offered to photograph her from far away with her face safely hidden behind the umbrella.  That’s just the way it is sometimes.  People are often uncomfortable being photographed, especially if it is going to be uploaded into the cavernous halls of the internet.

Originally from Kenya, Phiona is hoping to go to Africa for the holidays.  When you’re unemployed there is that weird balance of time and money.  When you were working you could afford to travel but didn’t have the time.  Now when you are unemployed you have more time than you could imagine but spending money on travel was always difficult for me.

Anyway, I wanted to share something with you that Phiona said.  We were talking about a variety of different things as the rain fell from the steel-wool colored November sky.  “It’s always somebody else who tells you who you are,” she said.  That’s an interesting comment because it goes along well with a phrase that I particularly like, “perception is reality.”  But is it really true that we are the person that someone else tells us we are ?  I say that we are who we are but we are to others what they tell us we are.  Wow, somebody else could surely phrase that better than I did!  By the way, I don’t think I have ever written a sentence where I used “we are” three times…perhaps I just won a prize or something!

Anyway, she didn’t know what she was going to do with the $10 when we said goodbye but promised to email me and give me an update.  Well, she did just that.  This week I received an email from Phiona letting me know that she bought herself some lunch with $5 of it and gave the rest to a homeless man by the Metro.

Enjoy your weekend!

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If you are in DC this morning, get off your computer and run down to the mall and check out the Help the Homeless Walkathon sponsored by Fannie Mae.  If you can’t get out there and still want to help, you can donate by clicking here and selecting your favorite local organization.  I didn’t see Street Sense on the list, which many of you know I support.  They are a small organization that uses their funds wisely and are in need of support…click here to directly donate to DC’s only homeless newspaper.

Today’s recipient I found at Dupont Circle around 8pm on a Sunday night.  Sandra is from La Puente, California.  La Puente is just east of Los Angeles and north of Anaheim.  After attending mass at St. Matthews, her sister Aida went searching for a Whole Foods while Sandra waited for her on a picturesque park bench in earshot of the soothing fountain at Dupont Circle.  “She’s a health nut,” Sandra said referring to Aida.  Then they were planning to go watch Trick or Treaters.  Yeah, I know what you are thinking, “Reed is really behind on posting his blogs.”  You would be correct.  This is from October 31st!

I asked Sandra what brought her to DC.  “I’m in town because she is attending a conference here, the NCURA or something like that!”  It turns out she remembered correctly, it’s the National Council of University Research Administrators

Our Metro system here in DC is pretty good – when it is working!  They had arrived the day before and took the Metro from Reagan National Airport to Dupont.  Well, it turned into an awful ride because they arrived while the hundreds of thousands of rally-goers were trying to get downtown to see Jon Stewart at the Rally to Restore Sanity.  “People were mean,” she said.  “It was a big mistake.”  

Our attention was occasionally side tracked by someone walking by in costume.  There were a lot of people dressed up as bananas?  What the hell is that all about?

Anyway, Sandra is one of the 14.8 million people who are unemployed in the United States.  After her mother passed away in May of 2009, she found herself a little lost and unsure what she wanted to do.  She ended up quitting her job last February to go and live with her father.  “He’s much better now,” she told me. 

“I was doing procurement work and I am not sure that is what I want to do now although I have a lot of experience doing that.  I’m kind of reevaluating my life right now I guess.”  I encouraged her to make the leap and try something she is passionate about.  “I just don’t know what that is though right now,” she said.  I think that is pretty common.  I am very fortunate right now to have two jobs that are mentally and emotionally rewarding.  It’s not worth it in the long run just to go in to work every day just to get a paycheck, although sometimes we find ourselves having to do that to keep the electricity on or to feed our family.

She told me she was going to use the money to help someone else out.  I’m hoping she will update us here on what happened to it.

Sometimes when I approach people at night, especially women, they are intimidated.  You have to be careful.  She made me laugh when I asked her if she was intimidated when I approached her.  “No, not really.”  Hmm…it’s a good thing I didn’t choose bank robbing or something like that for a profession.

The temperature was dropping and I was sure Sandra was chilly being from Southern California.  She was well dressed though; she had on a dark coat and gloves.  Aida arrived and we chatted briefly before I excused myself.  Sandra didn’t want her picture to be taken…so no photo for you today.

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This Sunday is the 10th of October.  Inspired by the Year of Giving, a guy named Howard Wu created an event, Give a Stranger 10 Bucks Day.  Howard thought that the perfect day to do this would be October 10th since it is 10/10/10.  Why not join me and Howard and give $10 away this Sunday.  Click here to go to Howard’s event page.  Like the Worldwide Day of Giving, I encourage you to leave comments here or on the Facebook page about your experience.  Good luck!

Ernest has been out of work for nearly five years. (photo: Reed)

On Day 280 I saw Ernest holding a sign on the side of a very busy intersection in Virginia.  Born in Alexandria, VA, this 51-year-old used to work for the Alexandria School Board, but he has been unemployed for the past five years.  He now lives in motels.

“I started panhandling about a month and a half ago,” Ernest tells me.  “I was working on and off for a moving truck company.”  Now he stands on the corner of Lee Highway and Fairfax Road holding a sign that says, “I am homeless.  Does it hurt to give to someone in need.  Please help me if you can?  God bless.”

He says that on a good day he brings in about $90.

Now divorced, Ernest has a 30 year-old-son, two grandkids and three stepchildren.  “I try not to be a burden to any of my kids.”  He says that some people he knows don’t know that he is homeless, but admits that “the truth will set you free.”

“I’m not learning too much out here,” he confesses as a pick-up truck whizzes by him pushing him up against the guard rail.  “You get all kinds of people out here.”  A lot of people show him compassion and offer him some help, but others taunt him.  “You know some guys say stuff like, ‘Hey man you look healthy…get a job!’  I’m like, at least give me a smile or a wave or something.”

He says that it is really hard for him right now.  “I would much rather have a job.”  He would like to find work as a handyman, custodian or maintenance man.   

Although he says he is not learning much, I did find one thing he has learned.  He figured out where the best corner to stand was.  “I used to stand across the street and a few other places, but this has the most traffic,” he explains.  I was shocked that he chose the spot he did because there was only about 18 inches between him and the passing cars.  I jumped over on the other side of the guard rail while I spoke with him because I didn’t feel safe standing where he was.  

Ernest put the $10 I gave him toward the cost of his room that night.

Ernest used the $10 to pay for a motel room that night. (photo: Reed)

Before leaving, we swapped telephone numbers in case someone reading this would like to contact Ernest about a job.  I learned that in Arlington County if you fall below a certain economic indicator the county supplies you with a cell phone and a basic minutes plan.  This gives homeless individuals like Ernest a way for family, friends and potential employers to locate them.  Awesome!

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Ismail sleeping in the foreground as a cyclist pedals by on Rock Creek Parkway. (photo: Reed)

I made my way back from Pennsylvania to DC on Tuesday.  It was such a beautiful drive home that I thought I should get outside and go for a bike ride.  I got my Moleskine notebook, my camera, $10 and my audio recorder together and packed my Swiss Army backpack and headed out on my bike toward the Potomac River.  

It was a perfect day.  The sun was shining and people were out running and biking.  As I got close to the river I saw lots of people practicing crew and

Ismail still trying to wake up. (photo: Reed)

others just leisurely enjoying the calm waters.  About 100 yards from the manicured grounds of the Kennedy Center I found a man taking a nap on a shaded patch of grass on the northern bank of the Potomac. 

I cautiously approached him, trying to make a little bit of noise so that I didn’t startle him, and called out, “Excuse me.  I’m sorry to bother you, but do you have a minute.”  Ismail slowly roused from a groggy state.  He rubbed his eyes and wet his lips as he studied me and we slipped into an hour-long conversation about his life, politics, religion, economy and one Don Vito Corleone.

“I came here from Sudan 26 years ago to meet Marlon Brando,” Ismail says fighting off a cough.  He shares that he has seen all of Brando’s movies.  He is especially fond of Sayanora (1957) and the classic The Godfather (1972).  To Ismail, Brando was not just an actor, but much more.  “His movies had meaning and Brando himself stood for things.  His movies didn’t have any garbage.”  Still fighting off the sleep, he admits that he unfortunately never got to meet his idol.

I dug around in my backpack for my Moleskine notebook where I take notes about the people I meet.  It also has a handy folder where I keep my ten dollars and cards that I give people.  I realized I had left the book on my kitchen counter.  Shoot.  I checked my wallet, all I had was two twenties and four singles.  Hmmm. What to do?  Well, I will just offer him $20.

A crew team glides by behind Ismail. (photo: Reed)

“Oh!  I’ve read about you.  I remember you.  There was a story about you in the Washington Post several months ago,” he says taking off his black modern looking glasses.  “But you normally give $10, right, let me give you $10 change,” he offered.  I told him to keep the extra ten; it would make for an interesting deviation in my giving.

“Did you think that I would ever find you,” I asked.  

“If I tell you, you’re not going to believe me, but I was thinking about you two days ago,” he says.  He had read an article somewhere about a guy who gave some money to a homeless guy in Rosslyn and he thought that perhaps it was me.  I don’t think it was, but you never know.  I have given to some people in Rosslyn which is just across the Potomac river.

Ismail originally came to the US from Sudan, the largest country in Africa and the Arab world.  It’s a unique country in that it has nine neighbors with a variety of different cultures, religions and languages.

His move to the US was related to his work with the League of Arab States.  18 years ago, he left the organization and began driving a cab in DC.  He recently was forced to stop driving his cab after racking up thousands of dollars of unpaid fines.  He got his license revoked and had to give up his taxi cab.  That was six months ago.  “I sent my wife and son home to Sudan and moved out of our apartment to save money,” the father of three said.  He tried the shelters but said that the conditions are so poor in most shelters that he prefers to sleep on the streets of DC.  “I am saving money to pay the fines, so I don’t need to have extra things to pay such as rent right now.”  He talks of a nice facility on Wisconsin Avenue where they allow eight individuals per day to shower there.  “I go there and sometimes even receive mail there.” 

Ismail has been homeless for six months. (photo: Reed)

He said he owed almost $5,600 in fines.  I never fully understood how he accumulated these fines or what they were for.  “I offered to pay them $150 per day every day at eight o’clock, but they said I had to pay everything at once, which I can not do.”  He says he has saved up a couple thousand dollars through working as a dish washing but still needs approximately $2,075.  Although he didn’t ask, I said maybe some of the readers of the Year of Giving would be able to help him.  He at first declined this offer saying that he was healthy and could work so he didn’t need to receive any assistance from others, but then said, “Well, I would accept the help with one condition.  If they would send me their name and address as well so that I can pay them back once I get my cab back.”  I believe he was sincere with this promise.

“I’m going to put your twenty dollars toward the money I owe,” he told me.  

Ismail laughs easily. (photo: Reed)

We chatted about the challenges of being homeless.  Ismail paused as a plane on final approach to Reagan National Airport passed overhead before saying, “Even if someone is homeless or crazy, he still has dignity.  He still needs to be listened to.”  He said that if you take a person’s dignity away they don’t have anything left.  I agree.  It reminds me of Anthony from Day 6, a homeless man who I met sitting in the snow near Dupont Circle Metro who was sending Christmas cards to his family members.  “I still have my pride,” Anthony told me last December.  

I enjoyed my time with Ismail and I know I will see him again.  If anyone wants to help him, let me know, I have his cell phone number.

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Located about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida, the Dominican Republic is home to about 10 million people, about twice the population of the Greater Washington, DC area.

Yudith sat on a wooden bench in a small park near the Dupont Metro.  This is the very same area where I met Alex on Day 109, John on Day 115 and the forthcoming story of Kathryn on Day 260.  Originally from the Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo, the 34-year-old now lives in Maryland with her parents.  She was waiting for her mother and agreed to take my $10 which she says she will give to a friend.  “My situation is not the best, but at least I have a job, she doesn’t have a job.”

“Life here hasn’t turned out to be what I hoped for,” she tells me in Spanish.  “I came here looking for a better job, but in some respects life was better back home.”  Yudith, a single mom, left her three daughters with her aunt five years ago and moved to Boston in an effort to earn enough money to provide for her family.  She later moved to DC where she at least has the stability of having her parents near by.  “My plan is uncertain right now.  I sometimes think of going back to Boston.  Finding a job there was difficult before but here has even been worse,” she says adding that she currently works in a beauty salon.  “I make between $300 and $600 a week here whereas back home I would only make about 4,000 pesos a month,” which was equal to about $135 at the time.  She wires money home every 15 days to help support her children.  What makes things even more complicated is the fact that her visa expired years ago and she is now here illegally.

She says that although things have been difficult here and she misses her daughters and many things about her life in Santo Domingo, there are many great things about the US as well.  “One thing that I really like about the United States is that there is less difference in how people treat others based on their economic status.  Back home there is a much bigger difference in how rich and poor people are treated.”  

Yudith’s mother arrived and I introduced myself to her.  She was friendly and smiled warmly at me.  I said goodbye and continued on my way.

I have lived many places.  In the US I have lived in California, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.  Outside of the US I have lived in Mexico, Spain and Brazil.  I have an idea for what it is like to live far from home; to adapt to new cultures and foreign languages.  One thing that I have always taken with me from the training that I received as a Rotary Youth Exchange student is that things are neither better nor worse in another country, they are just different.

I felt that Yudith understands this and is trying to make the best of it.  It must be really hard though.  She has a much more challenging situation than I had in any of my experiences in other countries.  I wish her lots luck.

By the way, I guess the Year of Giving was featured in a Chinese newspaper.  I have received so many nice emails and comments from readers in China.  Xie xie!  I think that is thank you in Mandarin.

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