A few years ago, I attended the high school graduation of one of my mentees. All the students at Girard College (yes, that’s actually the name of the high school) are there because of some sort of adversity in their lives. The vast majority of them are also from areas of Philadelphia where it’s assumed that they won’t go to college. In their neighborhoods, one in three kids drops out of high school and only a small fraction of those who do graduate continue their education.
At Girard, on the other hand, 100 percent of that year’s graduates were accepted by colleges. These students beat the odds and went on to attend some of the best institutions in the country, including the University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan and Howard.
At the graduation ceremony, parents who hadn’t graduated high school were crying and cheering for their children who were. Children who were giving future generations a new standard to aspire to. I also met Girard alumni who have a lasting bond with their high school. The man sitting next to me was a seventysomething Columbia professor who had traveled from New York for the occasion, and he proudly belted out the school song along with the new graduates. He told me he’s forever connected to Girard because of the impact the school had on his life.
Commencement speaker Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, spoke passionately about the wonderful accomplishments of the students, and he talked about the world they’ll inherit. He talked about the negativity that’s so pervasive in the media. He questioned why a shooting in the neighborhood was more likely to be covered in the news than the annual success of this institution. By the time he was done, the same question was resounding in my head, and I was hoping against hope to see a story about Girard’s graduation in the news the next day.
But it wasn’t to be. None of the news outlets said a word about it. Instead, I was informed of an arrest for shoplifting, an armed robbery and a car crash. Why did students who were beating the odds slip under the radar but a car crash and an arrest didn’t? I’m not sure, but writing this book is my effort to share more of the stories that matter.
When my wife was sick with leukemia, we spent a lot of time at the hospital, and a patient advocate suggested we create projects to give us purpose and focus during such an emotionally draining experience. So I began writing about the friends, family members and complete strangers who rescued us from that dark time, often with the smallest gestures, and I found that I didn’t want to stop. I knew that like Girard College, the world was full of other people’s inspiring stories that didn’t make the news, so I sought them out. I scoured the Internet, I talked to people at countless nonprofits and I asked everyone I knew for their stories. And I found what I was looking for.
I found the story of the third-grade teacher who changed a boy’s life with a simple lesson in shoe-tying. The story about the band of seamstress grandmothers who descend on Philadelphia every week to patch clothes—and, in the process, mend hearts—for homeless people. The story of the woman whose decision to make an extra meal to feed someone in need led to a movement that’s provided more than sixteen million meals. And so many more about people whose love for others has made a difference in the world.
The heroes in HumanKind don’t command an army of helpers or have an abundance of free time. They’re everyday people who focus on what they can do to make a difference. Their acts of kindness change lives and even save them. These everyday heroes don’t just hope the world will get better—they make it better.
Each chapter’s conclusion and the Hall of Fame at the end of the book highlight easy ways you can have a meaningful impact. You’ll discover where a $195 donation can cure someone’s blindness and where $500 can pay for a treatment that enables a disabled child to walk. You’ll find a dozen ideas, many of which surprised me, that people going through difficult times suggest as the best ways to help them. You’ll discover thirteen nonprofits that will forward your letters of encouragement to hospitalized kids, foster youths, recently diagnosed cancer patients, deployed troops and others who will cherish your support. You’ll see how buying someone a meal or sharing a few words of encouragement at the right time really can change a life.
I hope HumanKind leaves you feeling grateful for the blessings in your own life. I hope the people you read about also leave you feeling inspired and plant the seeds for more inspiring stories. Stories about the difference you decide to make in the world.
Chapter 1: Love Does
“Every day I wake up and say, ‘I’m going to save a life.’ All day long I look for situations where I can save a life. And I do it. Every day I save at least one life. Today I probably saved five lives. And I feel good about it. Try it. Wake up tomorrow and say, ‘I’m going to save at least one life today.’ Even helping an old woman across the street counts. Even responding to an email and helping someone make an important decision saves a life. Even reaching out to a distant friend and asking, ‘How are you doing?’ can save their life. You can save a life today. Don’t let the sun set without doing that. You are Superman.”
“Mia has leukemia.”
“It’s important for her to start treatment immediately,” the oncologist said. “She’ll need to be admitted to the hospital as soon as possible.”
Is this really happening? To us?
The doctor kept talking, and despite the chaos happening in my head, I paid attention as best I could and took notes. But it wasn’t till we left her office and I looked back over what I’d written that it started making sense to me: “Don’t read about leukemia online…. The treatment is two and a half years, so focus on one step at a time and not the entire process…. Mia’s odds are very good…. A new treatment regimen had clinical trial results with a high level of success, and Mia will receive that treatment….”
One thing I very clearly remembered hearing was that Mia would undergo a month of inpatient chemotherapy—which would encompass Christmas and New Year’s—followed by nine months of intense outpatient chemo, during which my wife would probably feel awful. And that would be followed by about a year and a half of maintenance chemo.
It was really happening. It was going to be a rough two and a half years.
Right off the bat, things were going to change drastically at home. Mia was typically in charge of anything resembling work around the house, while I served mainly as chief fun officer. I was the one to persuade Mia and our five-year-old son, Jack, to dance outside in the rain, the one to invent new sloppy desserts, and the one to come up with indoor games that were a little reckless and usually ended with something in pieces on the floor. Now I would have to perform the duties of director of fun, household operations manager and defender of normalcy. Social workers told us that because of Jack’s young age he wouldn’t become anxious or even detect that Mom was less involved as long as I managed everything Mia used to do and remained upbeat. If his life didn’t change, he wouldn’t notice. No pressure.
I was determined not to blow it, but I was also terrified and completely unprepared. Before long I was exhausted, too. I couldn’t even think clearly enough to delegate when people reached out to help. Wearily, I told them I’d get back to them. Fortunately, they knew better than to wait for me. Instead, family and friends took the initiative to make our lives easier in more ways than I knew were possible.
My brother, Rob, and his wife, Tippi, talked to nurses, doctors, and cancer patients and made a comprehensive list of items that people undergoing inpatient chemotherapy need. Then they went out and bought every single item on the list and dropped off the mountain of stuff just before Mia was admitted. There were special pillowcases to keep her scalp from getting irritated when her hair fell out, lemon drops to take away the chemo aftertaste, special mouthwash to ease the pain of mouth sores, creams for the skin irritation chemo would cause—the list went on and on. Rob and Tippi had even thought to include some books on explaining cancer to a child.
My cousin Betsy came by our house one day with an enormous bowl of candy for me to give to the nurses who took care of Mia. Betsy knew my high opinion of them, and she also knew I might not find the time to pick something up.
My colleague Mitchell, a fellow board member of a local nonprofit, knew I wouldn’t be able to pay as much attention to my nonprofit commitments and basically said, “Here’s the work I’m going to do for you, and I want to do more. What else can I do?” I wouldn’t have asked for help even though I needed it (a problem I’ve since overcome), but Mitchell made it easy to accept assistance.
Mia’s friend Meg came to visit almost every week. She brought lunch, planned a weekly craft project, and brought all the supplies for each project. Meg’s family and work life is so busy that it’s hard for us to schedule a night to go out together, but when Mia needed her, Meg wouldn’t let anything get in the way of being there.
My cousin Katy and her husband, Jason, who work full time and have four young kids, often told us how easy it would be for them to add Jack to their pack. They were happy to take him on vacations or entertain him for weekends or any time we needed.
When spring came around, Mia’s friend Dawn emailed me: “I know Mia usually takes care of Little League sign-ups, so I thought I’d let you know that sign-up is due this week if Jack wants to participate. Let me know your preferences and I’ll help with this.” She also ensured that Jack was put on a team with a family that could help us with transportation since we didn’t know how available I would be to drive. This was despite a reasonable league policy against requesting specific friends for teams.
At one point, Mia started craving processed cheese products as a side effect of chemo, and when our friend Jon visited from Boston, he came bearing bags of Cheez Doodles, jalapeño-flavored Combos and packages of freakishly shaped and vividly colored products I’d never even heard of (and we both hope never to taste again). It was a welcome surprise, injecting some pleasure into what would otherwise have been another monotonous day of treatment. Jon ended up visiting regularly, even when we told him it wasn’t necessary, and he never made it sound as if the trip from Boston to Philadelphia had been anything but a breeze.
At another point, Mia expressed concern about losing her eyebrows and eyelashes. She was fine with losing her hair, but this was a different thing altogether—you can’t hide missing eyebrows and eyelashes with a wig. When my cousin Andrea heard this, she took it upon herself to exhaustively research the market and send a large box filled with things like eyebrow pencils, markers, gels, powders, brushes, liners and shapers. There was also a product called Lashes to Die For, which gave us a good therapeutic laugh. (We guessed the manufacturer doesn’t typically market to cancer patients.)
And then there were our parents. When they asked how they could help, I never knew what to ask for and put them off. Of course, most parents aren’t big on being put off, and ours would simply arrive in Philadelphia from Seattle and New Jersey bearing the gift of their time. They’d stay as long as several weeks and entertain Jack, cook, do laundry, and stay positive.
We also had a long list of friends and family members who would pick up Jack after school when I was at the hospital or at chemotherapy with Mia. Not a single one ever mentioned any logistical challenges they may have faced. Instead, they all told us how happy they were that we’d asked and that they could help.
And amid it all—amid the nonstop comings and goings, the trips to the hospital, and the increasingly challenging task of preserving normalcy—I checked the mailbox one day and found a Ziploc full of packages of something called Wikki Stix. On the bag, our neighbors had written, “We love making things as a family. See what you think! XO.” I took the bag inside, and Jack and I promptly proceeded to connect the wax-coated yarn to make cars, spaceships, and anything else we had the urge to create. It was a blast, a much-needed port in the storm.
That isn’t the half of it. Not even close. So many people did so much for us that I hesitated to mention any of them here because I’d have to leave out far more than I could include. Their gestures ran the gamut from simple notes of support sent by people we barely knew, to meals dropped off by friends, to my cousin Dave’s offer to move into our house and help keep things going during Mia’s treatment. Here’s the email he wrote me:
I’m sorry to hear the news but Davida has told me this is very beatable and you are with the BEST doctor. If you feel you need a second opinion I’m happy to call relationships in New York as well.
In the meantime, please, please, PLEASE use me. I have done some thinking and I’m the willing and logical choice to be your first call for every little errand or Jack-related need.
Firstly, my job is super easy and requires very little of my time, which can be covered by my dad or one of our workers anyway, so I can be ready at a moment’s notice or for regular events like picking up Jack at school or tennis.
Secondly, I’m local. I am in Philly every weekday and Davida and I discussed it and she wouldn’t mind (in fact she suggested it) if I moved to Philly for the month Mia is in the hospital. I would be at my parents’ place, so I’m very convenient and could be there for Jack full time if necessary. I could even stay over for a night or a month if you need an overnight sitter.
Thirdly, I’m the logical choice. I have no important responsibilities.
- Richard is a single dad and low man on the totem pole at work.
- My sister Betsy has Charlotte, is pregnant, and also helps my mom.
- My dad is focused on my mom and building the house for her.
- My sister Katy has four kids and lives far away.
- Rob and Tippi live far away as well as have their own kids.
Fourthly, I’m responsible. I can be relied on and I follow directions exactly to the letter. You or Mia can write out anything you want done and know I’ll follow it out exactly as it’s written (even grocery shopping or cooking for Jack ... I follow recipes very well). I may not have refined parenting skills yet, but I can certainly step in and follow your orders well.
We love you and Mia, and both Davida and I are completely ready to help in any way possible.
We didn’t take him up on his offer to move in, but we did recruit him for Jack’s team of chauffeurs.
Dave’s email sums up the no-stone-unturned approach that the people in our lives took to our situation. They anticipated every possible need of body and soul, and they all played a role in getting us through our all-consuming ordeal. Suddenly, our lives were full of slack—things that needed to be done that Mia and I didn’t have time for—and friends, family, and veritable strangers picked up all of it. They saw every crack in our armor and rushed in to fill it, and looking back, the result reminds me of the Japanese tradition of filling cracks in pottery with gold, which produces something that’s more beautiful than it was before it cracked. Others might not have been able to tell, but even though Mia was sick, we knew our lives were more beautiful because we’d received that love. In the end, we knew that even at the darkest moments, we’d never really been alone. And never will be.
There’s never been a lack of opportunity to have that kind of effect in the world by helping others. Least of all now. Just look around—there are needs to be filled everywhere. In schools, in soup kitchens, in homeless shelters, in disaster zones. But if you do look around, you’ll also see something else: all the people who are stepping up to pick up the slack. Yes, it can be paralyzing to think about the level of need out there, but if we do what we can, that will be enough. No expression of love is wasted, and even the smallest gestures tend to go much further than we think they will.
Remember how far Jon’s gift of junk food went. It didn’t cost him much time or money to pick it up at a grocery store, but the thought he put into it—the effort to empathize—meant everything to us. When it comes to caring for others, don’t underestimate the power of the most modest investment. There’s nothing modest about the results.
A Village Turns Out
There really is strength in numbers. The concept is sort of like a patchwork quilt made by many hands. Each person provides a single patch, and when the pieces are assembled they add up to something capable of providing comfort and protection. Stephanie Welter witnessed this phenomenon when her community came together on behalf of her son, Joe, who has autism.
When Joe gets upset, he hurts himself. He’ll slam his head against the floor, a brick wall, a door, or anything else that’s nearby. “I can’t describe how terrible it is to fear that your seven-year-old child will hurt himself and to see it happen before you can stop it,” Stephanie says. “Joe also runs away from us when we’re not looking, and my husband and I are always fearful that if we turn around to do something as simple as getting his baby sister out of the car, he might disappear and get hurt.”
Breaking with routine also brings the risk of “complete meltdown” and injury, Stephanie says. “So we don’t. And that keeps us from going out socially with other families, which would often leave me feeling like we were going through this alone.”
For Joe, getting older resulted in further social isolation. When he was younger, he could play with kids his age, but more recently he’s had trouble dealing with loud noises, and his abilities don’t align with other kids’. It’s also hard for him to play with others when his play amounts to lining up twenty matchbox cars in a specific order and making sure none of them are moved, which would result in a meltdown.
The Welters want Joe to have a future, to live a full life and be as independent as possible. So when they learned that an organization called 4 Paws for Ability provides autism service dogs that help people with the same types of problems Joe has, they were thrilled. The dogs are trained to track kids with special needs when they run off, to recognize when the kids are getting irritated and to calm them down before they can hurt themselves. The service dogs also serve as a social bridge to other children.
And then the Welters learned that, given the expense of training a service dog, 4 Paws required families to contribute $15,000 at the time, which is only a small portion of the total cost. The Welters figured that even with help from friends and family, it would probably take them a year and a half to scrape together that amount. But their son’s future was on the line, and they knew what they had to do.
“Asking for help was almost as hard as opening up to our family and friends about Joe’s situation in the first place,” Stephanie says. “But our discomfort was less important than getting Joe the help he needed.”
They began by including a letter with their Christmas cards explaining their goal. They made it clear that they didn’t want to impose but that any amount would help. At the same time, the staff at 4 Paws worked with the local newspaper to run a story about Joe’s situation. Two days after it was published, the Welters received a message on their answering machine: “I hope I have the right number. If you’re the mom of Joe in the paper, my ladies’ group wants to raise money for you.”
“I had to replay the message four times,” Stephanie says. “I was stunned. The group was from a church in the town where my son goes to school—people I didn’t even know.”
Later that week, Stephanie and her husband, John, were having breakfast when she got an email saying a company they’d never heard of had donated $2,000.
“I thought they’d added an extra zero by mistake,” she says, still clearly moved by the gesture.
And the surprises kept coming. A hardware store donated $500. Stephanie’s mother’s accordion group donated money. High school students called the house to ask if they could do a fundraiser. A woman who worked at a restaurant called to say she’d persuaded her boss to donate 10 percent of their take on a particular day toward Joe’s dog. When that day came, every one of Joe’s teachers ordered food from the restaurant. His former speech therapist put together a gift basket to be raffled off for the occasion, and another family who had gotten a service dog through 4 Paws donated a bounce house to be raffled.
When Joe and his family went to the restaurant themselves that night, they saw his former preschool teacher for the first time in years, and Joe was so excited that he hugged her, stepped back and hugged her again—not his usual behavior.
“It was wonderful—we felt like celebrities,” Stephanie says. “When we asked if the kitchen could make Joe a gluten-free grilled cheese with bread we’d brought, they said, ‘Of course—he’s the guest of honor.’ There were so many people we knew there and many we didn’t, and everyone came over to say hi.”
In the end, the event raised $800 and brought the total to $15,000. The Welters had put together lists of fundraising ideas to try, and they didn’t need any of them. Thanks to the help of hundreds of people, most of whom donated under $20, they’d reached their goal in just three months.
“I’m so happy for Joe,” Stephanie says. “Raising that money healed my heart, and I know now that we aren’t isolated and alone. People we didn’t even know sending in that $10 or $20 was life-altering for our whole family. We owe so much to everyone who helped us, and I will never forget it.”
Since getting his goldendoodle, Mulder, Joe’s life has changed radically. Like many children with autism, he hadn’t slept well. He’d wake up after four hours and take hours to go back to sleep. Stephanie and John tried weighted blankets, aromatherapy, yoga, prescription medicine, melatonin and every other sleep aid they could find, but nothing worked until Mulder came along. The day he arrived, Joe finally got his first full night of sleep. And he’s slept ten to twelve hours every night since then, which means the whole family has been able to sleep every night since then. Joe also hadn’t been reaching the yearly educational goals his school set for him, but now he’s achieving those goals. In fact, he achieved a year’s worth within two months of Mulder’s arrival, and for the first time, he’s enrolled in a class with typical kids. Most important, Joe isn’t known as the kid with autism. He’s known as the kid with a dog, and as other children have met Mulder, they’ve gotten to know and appreciate Joe, too.
To give back, the Welters now also provide a home for Hercules, a 4 Paws breeding dog, and Stephanie and Hercules volunteer as a therapy team at the local ER, a cancer center, schools and anywhere else where there’s a need. Stephanie also talks to most incoming 4 Paws volunteers so they hear firsthand the profound impact that Mulder has had on Joe’s family.
The Santa Brigade
We can’t foresee all the effects of an act of kindness. Sometimes we can’t get past the idea that our contribution would amount to the proverbial drop in the bucket. But if no one ever got past drop-in-the-bucket thinking, hundreds of donors wouldn’t have believed their $10 could make a difference to the Welters. We also wouldn’t have organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and Meals on Wheels. If Mary and Alice Goodwin and Elizabeth Hammersley hadn’t seen the value in trying to develop the character of a group of “lost boys” in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1860, Boys & Girls Clubs of America wouldn’t have seen the light of day. And if Larry Stewart hadn’t met someone else in need during a time when he was just barely surviving himself, the Society of Secret Santas might not be putting black boots to the ground around the world every year.
When Larry was growing up in his grandparents’ home in a small Mississippi town, he didn’t know they were impoverished. It wasn’t until he started school that he learned what he “lacked”—the bathrooms, telephones, hot water and gas stoves to be found in other kids’ homes.
As a young adult, Larry confronted poverty again. Living paycheck to paycheck, he became homeless when his employer went out of business owing Larry more than one check. So Larry resorted to living in his car, covering himself in his laundry in an effort to stay warm and hoping to forget his hunger. By the time he’d gone two days without a regular meal, he was so desperate that he went to the Dixie Diner and ordered breakfast without knowing how he’d pay for it.
When he finished eating, he started looking around on the floor, pretending he’d lost his wallet. The cook even came out from behind the counter and helped him look.
Then, suddenly, the search was over.
“You must have dropped this,” the cook said. He was holding a twenty-dollar bill.
Larry was so grateful that he made a vow to himself: as soon as he was able, he’d do something for others like what the cook had done for him. Over time, he became financially stable, and he set out to keep his vow. Although he wasn’t well off by any means, he knew he couldn’t put off getting started.
One evening, he stopped at a drive-in restaurant and noticed that the waitress was wearing a tattered coat that couldn’t have been keeping her warm. When he handed her a twenty-dollar bill to pay for his food, he knew it was the moment.
“Keep the change,” he said.
Tears welled in the waitress’s eyes, and her hands shook as she held the money. “You have no idea what this means to me,” she said, her voice shaking, too.
But Larry did have an idea what it meant to her.
Afterward, he was so inspired by what had happened that he started driving around looking for people who needed help. They weren’t hard to find, and he gave away $200 in fives and tens.
The more successful Larry became, the more money he gave away. By the time he’d earned considerable wealth in cable and phone services in Kansas City, Missouri, he was anonymously giving away substantial amounts as a “Secret Santa.” He consulted with local social workers, firefighters, and police officers to find needy and deserving recipients. He also found some of them on his own, at laundromats, social service agencies, government housing facilities, and businesses that paid minimum wage. At thrift stores, he often found people who were raising their grandchildren. When he would give them anywhere from $100 to $300, it would change the whole complexion of their Christmas as well as their outlook. For many of them, this money made it possible to buy presents and cover necessities like utility bills.
Larry didn’t want people to have to beg, get in line or apply for money. “I was giving in a way that allowed them to keep their dignity,” he said in an interview with a local news station years later. Just like the cook at the Dixie Diner had done for him.
All told, Larry gave away more than $1.4 million over the years. There are many stories from people whose homes he saved. People who told their families there wasn’t going to be a Christmas but wound up being able to buy gifts because of the money Secret Santa gave them. People who were able to pay their bills and get their gas turned back on, thanks to Larry.
In 2006, after serving as an anonymous Santa for more than twenty years, Larry was diagnosed with terminal cancer. At that point, he decided to go public because a tabloid newspaper was about to reveal his identity. Larry thought he should be the one to tell his story, hoping it would recruit more Santas to take his place. He’d seen that every time a Secret Santa was written about in the media, the coverage was followed by a wave of new Secret Santa appearances. He hoped making his identity public would continue to add to the ranks.
Larry got his wish. Thousands of people visited his website and signed up to become Secret Santas. And based on the number of people who emailed the site about their experiences that Christmas season, the new Secret Santas did more than sign up; they also turned out in force.
When Larry died in 2007, his handpicked successor—an anonymous Kansas City businessman—took over for him and continues to lead the Society of Secret Santas today. Its members follow in Larry’s footsteps around the world. The postings on the society’s website tell of giving money to victims of fires, people who had been evicted from their homes, and veterans and military families in need. They tell of former NFL player Dick Butkus handing out hundred-dollar bills in San Diego and former Major League Baseball player Luis Gonzalez doing the same in Phoenix.
A foundation was also formed in Larry’s honor to accept donations to be used by the Santas. The first donation was from former Kansas City parking attendant Sam Williams, who wanted to make a small gift in memory of the man who’d given him a hundred-dollar bill a few years before. “He gave me the biggest gift I ever got in my life,” Williams told KMBC News.
Larry gave Secret Santas everywhere a gift, too. As the society’s website says, “The compassion shared from one spontaneous random act of kindness is elevating, priceless and not easily explained. It is an instant connection between souls that can change a life forever. Being a Secret Santa has blessings beyond words.”
What’s more, it’s a gift anybody can give. “It’s not about the man, it’s not about the money— it's about the message,” says a Secret Santa. “Anyone can be a Secret Santa with a kind word, a gesture, a helping hand."
And what impact that gesture may have is anybody’s guess. “You never know what one little act of kindness will do for somebody,” as Larry told Ted Horn, chef-owner of the Dixie Diner, when he tracked him down twenty-eight years after their first meeting. “It can change their whole life.… It changed mine.”[i]
Larry said it—you never know. You never know which “drop in the bucket” will spark a movement, and you don’t want to cheat the world out of that. But it’s important to act regardless of the scope of the outcome. Even if an act of kindness helps just a single person for a single day, that’s a gift. A gift I was fortunate enough to receive the day Mia was admitted to the hospital.
She started the day with surgery to insert a PICC line, a tube that ran from her arm near her biceps to a vein next to her heart to provide “express delivery” of chemotherapy medication and other drugs during her treatment. She was in pain afterward, and as I wheeled her to the room where she would live for a month, I saw how sick the other blood cancer patients were—the patients who’d already lost their hair and enormous amounts of weight and who had trouble walking because of their lack of strength and the IV poles that their PICC lines were tethered to. Although I kept it to myself, I was terrified.
Once Mia was in her room, I raced home to pack everything she’d need for the month, not wanting to leave her alone any longer than necessary. When I got back to the hospital, the parking spot I found was nowhere near the blood cancer department, so to save time I loaded myself up like a pack animal with the suitcase, the shoulder bags, the pillows and the trash bag filled with clothes so I could keep it to one long hike instead of two. Along the way, I was constantly dropping one bag or another because I couldn’t get the right grip, and no matter how I adjusted the load, I couldn’t find the right system. There was no right system—I was carrying too much. But I’d come too far to turn back—I’d already lost thirty minutes—so I didn’t.
I was hard not to notice, but somehow an astonishing number of people passed right by. And I know they saw me because they commented to each other about how much that poor guy was carrying.
I’m generally calm, but this was a moment of hell within a day of hell, and I started clenching my teeth so hard it hurt.
This is what I get for trying to be a good person? For helping people whenever I can? Not a single person can help me with my fucking bags???
Finally, just as I reached the point where I really didn’t know what I’d do next, I heard the beautiful words: “You look like you need a hand. Can I help?”
I almost cried.
He was a young guy—a med student doing his residency, he told me—and he helped carry the load all the way to Mia’s room. The detour might have cut his lunch break short or made him fifteen minutes late for a meeting—I don’t know. I didn’t even ask his name. All I know is that, years later, Mia’s treatment is a blur in my mind but I vividly recall the stranger who took the time to help. Thanks to him, I made it through one of the most stressful days of my life, and I was that much more prepared for the next day’s battle.
Life is a series of single days. If we make up our minds to help each other through those days, before we know it we’ll be getting by. Of the many forms that love takes, maybe the most obvious one is a simple decision: a decision to put in the effort to make someone’s life easier or more rewarding, even if just for a day. A commitment to doing more than hoping for the best for each other. It’s bringing a homeless person a meal. It’s being a positive influence for someone who needs one. It’s helping in the wake of a disaster. It’s taking some of the load off a guy whose legs are starting to buckle under the weight.
It’s picking up the slack.
What We Can Do
All of us can use a hand—we can’t pick up all the slack ourselves. Whether we need help getting through a day, a year, or life itself, we all know what it’s like to be in a position of need. Luckily, living is a team sport, and we all have it in us to provide an assist when someone’s going through rough times, even if it’s just to let them know we’re thinking of them. Knowing that someone cares is often all we need to find the strength to keep going. That was the case when the parent of one of Jack’s classmates sent us this note during Mia’s treatment:
I just saw the notice to Primary B and wanted to say hello. It sounds from the note like your recovery has moved forward. But I just wanted to reach out to wish you strength and to let you know you have another person in your corner.
Jill (mom of a 2nd grader)
We’d never met Jill, but her note had an unexpected effect on me. I felt energized, like something vital had been revived, and I have to believe it had something to do with the fact that Jill was a relative stranger. Love from our loved ones and strangers—it’s pretty overwhelming.
Here are some things you can do to let others know you’re thinking of them:
Do something small
We usually have a good idea of who could use some support, but we’re often hesitant to do something. Maybe we don’t know what to do, we think the person doesn’t want the attention, we think we don’t know them well enough, or we believe others have already reached out. Don’t worry about any of that. When we let them know that we see them and we’re thinking about them, it’s appreciated. Beth Hackett, who lost her fifteen-year-old son, told Upworthy, “The most powerful communication of compassion and understanding was anonymous. Someone mailed us a gift card to the local grocery store: no name, no return address.… Weeks later when I pulled the gift card out of my wallet at the checkout, it was all I could do to hold back the tears.”
Do something specific
We can ask, “What can I do for you?” or say, “Let me know if you need something,” but when Mia was sick, I found it hard to even know what I needed. So it was wonderful when someone went ahead and did something without our asking. For example, neighbors shoveled our snow and friends dropped off meals. You can also make a specific offer: “Can I take your kids to the zoo one day this week after school? You might not need it this week, so take me up on it anytime. I’d love to do it.” If you want to do more, you could add, “I’d also love to be given a job to do, so please reach out if one comes up.”
Go all out
If you think something bigger would be welcome, go for it. We loved it when people went over the top. Here’s a note Mia received from her crafting friends:
I just wanted to give you a heads-up that your craft ladies would like to cover you on the activity front—we are hatching a plan to create a variety of different craft kits for you to do in the hospital—and if company sounds appealing, the ladies and I would also love to make a visit early on to help craft and decorate. Carolyn has an elaborate idea about stenciling the windows. We could be your knitting circle on crack.
Think it over and let me know if that sounds appealing. If you don't want a home-decorating invasion, then you can just have the craft boxes, which will rock regardless.
The craft group wound up swooping in like the crew from Queer Eye to give Mia’s hospital room a design makeover, which cheered her up and led to many enjoyable conversations with nurses who stopped by to check it out.
And our friends John and Kelly and their daughter, Fi, didn’t just send Mia a care package—they sent her a fully decorated box crammed with stuff. More than we really needed yet exactly what we needed.
Schedule ongoing reminders
I’m convinced our friends Matt and Meg and my Aunt Leslie put recurring reminders on their calendars, because they reached out practically every week of Mia’s treatment. Often, there’s an outpouring of support soon after a diagnosis, a death, a divorce, or some other traumatic life event, but the support tends to taper off before too long. Meanwhile, the stress and the challenges continue, making check-ins over time greatly appreciated. And the support can be simple. Instead of asking about Mia’s health, my Aunt Leslie sent a funny card every couple of weeks with a note about what was going on in her life. She didn’t need to say anything else—we knew she was there for us.
Keep an eye out in your community
Kindness can extend beyond family and friends. Even if you hardly know someone, you can be a great source of support. When youth director Adeel Ahmad arrived at Nusrat Mosque in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, in February 2017—a time when hostility toward Muslims was growing in America—he found that someone had tied a large paper heart to the plants outside the door. Next to it was a pink envelope addressed to “Our Friends and Neighbors.” Inside, the note read: “Dear Friends, Thank you for being here. You make all of us stronger, better and kinder. May peace be with us all.”
Who can you send a note to?
Think like Santa
Give gifts to people you don’t know. Let them know that someone out there cares about them even if they’ve never met you. In the HumanKind Hall of Fame at the end of this book, I’ve listed six organizations through which you can give gifts to kids who otherwise wouldn’t receive any, to troops and to other people you don’t know.
I can’t stress this enough: when someone is going through a crisis, emotions are magnified and even the smallest acts have tremendous power. Don’t underestimate the strength you can provide with a two-minute gesture like a text, an email or a phone call.
Take fifteen minutes to…
Who do you know who could use a lift? Write their names on a piece of paper or type them into your phone. How will you let them know you’re thinking about them? You can send a text, a gift card, a book, or anything else you think they’d appreciate. If you don’t have time to do something now, mark the dates on your calendar when you’ll send your support to the people on your list.
[i] Donna McGuire, Santa’s Secret: A Story of Hope (Lee’s Summit, Missouri: World 2 Publishing, 2007).