Monthly Archives: December 2010

They Got Tickets to Ride

I like Good Samaritan stories. Probably because they remind us that when we’re in a jam, it’s not just our friends and family who rally for us: Sometimes it’s complete strangers.

A Good Samaritan came through recently for a woman in Montreal working as a nanny. Like so many other Filipinas I’ve met, she left her family in her home country in order to look after other people’s children here. It’s the only way she could be sure of providing for her own kids, setting them up for a better future. After saving up four thousand dollars and buying what she thought was air passage to Canada for her husband and three kids, this woman got cheated. The airline tickets were fake, and the travel agent in the Philippines who sold them to her has skedaddled.

But one of her Canadian employers went to the media with the story. The word was spread. And that’s when a man in Laval, Quebec, came forward and generously donated plane tickets to the nanny’s whole family.

Naturally there was a bit of a media scrum at Trudeau International Airport yesterday to witness the touching reunion of this family of five. For that matter, I’m sure it won’t be long before the YouTube video goes viral. We like happy endings. (Case in point: Can you even watch the Tim Hortons “Welcome Home” commercial without tearing up?) And it’s all thanks to the kindness of a stranger.

Part of the sociological explanation for why we lend a hand to people we’ve never met is that it creates a more connected society. This ups the odds that a stranger will help us when we’re the ones in need.

Scientifically, it makes sense. Instinctively, though, people simply step up. And that’s one of the beauties of being human.

Good Deedless for the Day

I’m feeling apologetic. I guess that makes me a stereotypical Canadian.

Our family was in full gift-giving mode yesterday. We have only one child, so there oughtn’t to be much under the tree on Christmas morning. And the truth is, nothing is exactly what you’d call over-the-top extravagant. But it’s been a challenging year, and we family members have really come through for each other, and I suppose exchanging thoughtful gifts is a way of expressing our gratitude for each other. We do also spend part of Christmas Day with extended family, but we’ve got strategies in place to keep the gift frenzy to a minimum: The adults buy a present for only one other adult. Still, with a group of 18 people (not to mention some awfully cute kids), there’s a fair bit of wrapping paper flying around.

And now it’s Boxing Day, and I’m on a holiday break. Apart from the family and household chores that I can’t get out of – the kitchen doesn’t clean itself – I have made up my mind to work as little as possible.

So I’m sipping a coffee and reading the paper and determined to relax. And now I read a story about the aftermath of the Haiti disaster, and about generous souls from around the world who are making significant sacrifices of their time and money to do what they can to help a few of the people there. And then I speak on the phone with my neighbour, whose family is headed to the local food bank to volunteer over the holidays.

And that’s when I feel small. Me, I have no grandiose plans for doing good today. Or even this week. I was just intending to take a time out for a day or two, leafing through a couple of my new books or cracking open my lime-mint hand lotion.

It’s almost worse when I check my e-mail and discover that some obviously big-hearted guy in south Asia has sent information about my writing to a bunch of his friends, presumably hoping I’ll inspire them. Me? How can I compete with folks who are literally transforming their lives to make a difference to total strangers?

But whenever I talk about good deeds, there are two things I always come back to. (Okay, there are usually more than two because I tend to gab. But I digress…) First, I’m no girl guide. I’m just a regular person with a mortgage and chores and a job and occasionally extranormal family responsibilities. I know I am not ever going to singlehandedly save the world. Second – and this is an important piece – even the tiniest things that we do for another person have the potential to make a large difference. Often they set off a chain of kindnesses that we couldn’t possibly have predicted. So these acts are important, even if we don’t know it.

And so maybe I’ve got my feet up for most of the day. But perhaps the word of encouragement I give to someone today, or the cup of sugar I lend to a neighbour, or the mail I send to our foster child in Africa, may have an impact. And if it doesn’t? At least the positive vibes will be humming.

So for now I think I’ll let myself off the hook, and pour more coffee.

No, I’m not saving Haiti today. But I did find a chuckle or two in the funny pages.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

With all the feel-good stories flying around at this time of year, the uglier news items may seem particularly disturbing in comparison. And besides, most of us with a memory for the sensational will probably always cringe whenever the words “Greyhound” and “unruly passenger” appear together. Which is why a recent headline about an almost bus disaster caused by an out-of-control rider seems, on the face of it, to be a harrowing story.

Apparently a distraught passenger tried to force the driver to make an unscheduled stop by seizing the steering wheel in the middle of the Trans-Canada Highway. Fortunately, the driver managed to keep control of the vehicle. It could have had horrific results.

But there is in fact a beautiful act of kindness embedded in this story. We learn that after the level-headed driver fended off the frantic passenger and managed to keep everyone on the crowded bus safe, and after two other passengers grabbed the man and restrained him until the cops arrived, and after a weekend in which I’m guessing that most everyone involved gave extra-tight hugs to their loved ones… yet another of the passengers stepped up.

Stephen Jarmus has been riding Greyhound buses for almost 50 years. He told reporters he’d never seen anything like this happen before. He knew the driver had done an incredible thing by keeping his cool in a moment of danger, and that his actions had kept a busload of people from getting hurt or killed.

So, Jarmus stopped in at Greyhound’s Winnipeg office to personally heap praises on the driver.

“I felt it was my duty to express gratitude to the fellow,” he’s quoted as saying. Jarmus’s good deed cost him little, but likely meant a great deal to the driver and his supervisors.

So the question of the day is this: How often do any of us take the time to report laudable work? Often we’re quick to make complaints, and slower to issue kudos. Who’s guilty? You bet my own hand’s waving in the air here.

One person who has taken this message to heart is Rocksifter. That’s the ambiguous screen name used by a reader who posted an online comment after this news story. He (or she, because women sift rocks too) says: “Your example encourages me to remember to also speak up when I see people doing good things.” Thanks, Rocksifter, for driving the point home.

Santa Moonlighting as a Displaced Texan?

A lovely tale landed in my in-box this week that I’m absolutely compelled to share. Here’s the backstory: My friend Derek works in central California as a flight paramedic. He literally saves lives in high-stress, heart-pumping emergency situations. If it sounds like a glamourous job, Derek assures me that it’s both underpaid and underappreciated. Meaning 17 years’ experience has taught him that the gratitude he can expect to receive for his hard work is limited.

So it was memorable when, a few days ago, Derek walked into Starbucks and lined up behind a cowboy. This feller was six and a half feet tall. He wore a mammoth-sized cowboy hat and, sure as you’re born, big cowboy boots. He even spoke in a drawl. And the reason Derek knows this is because when Cowboy noticed him he asked about Derek’s work, told the cashier he was paying for the gentleman’s coffee, and then said to him sincerely: “Thank you for your public service.”

“It’s the first time anyone has ever done that kind of thing for me,” Derek says. It sounds like it pretty much blew his mind. He reflects: “I realize it wasn’t about him buying me the coffee, but all about what he said.” A word of thanks is something Derek rarely hears on the job.

This straight-shooting cowboy then wished my friend a merry Christmas and walked out, leaving us to wonder what may have prompted him to express his appreciation so spontaneously.

Did I happen to mention that Cowboy had a bushy whitish beard and moustache? No joke. Does Santa ever moonlight as a displaced Texan? Discuss amongst yourselves.

“I believe I will have to pay it forward,” Derek says now.

That’s so very much what it’s all about.

By the way, I mentioned earlier that I’d be making a television appearance to speak about good deeds. If you’re interested in catching the segment, tune in to CTV’s Canada AM on Monday. I’ll be interviewed at around 7:40 a.m. See you in TV land!

How It Feels to Be the Helpee

The other day I met a mom who is anticipating a tough holiday season. I haven’t known her long, but I’ve learned enough about her to know that she has a very long history of giving to others and helping those less fortunate. She just didn’t expect to need help herself this year. Not surprisingly, she’s also feeling the winter blues.

It’s not easy to reach out, but she did, and consequently a bag of gifts for her three kids passed from our hands to hers. Later, she e-mailed me a message that acutely struck home, so I hope she doesn’t mind my sharing it here: “It’s funny,” she wrote, “how someone helping me actually made my spirits rise. Most people may get depressed over getting help. But it makes me feel good knowing that there are people out there who care.”

I so totally get her. My family is needy too, but in a different way. My husband is quadriplegic with health problems, and we’re busy working parents. So our neediness usually comes in the form of I-don’t-have-time-to-clear-the-snowy-driveway stress, and I-need-a-ride-to-the-drugstore pressure, and you’re-invited-for-dinner-but-you-have-to-bring-the-casserole angst. Lately, our day-to-day life is time-squeezed, typically unpredictable, often chaotic. I’ve been known to throw a tantrum or two and I’m not proud of it.

But how lucky are we? We are endowed with the most supportive neighbours, friends and relatives anyone could want. We are constantly helped. We are the helpees.

And, just like my new acquaintance wrote to me, it genuinely does lift our spirits. It makes our lives that much rosier, knowing these lovely people care, that they’re here if we need them, that they think of us – and that they’re not yet sick of bringing the food when they visit us. (It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m learning to make a mean martini.)

In fact I think one of the reasons it feels so fantastic to help others is because all of us have learned, at some time or another, exactly how it feels to be the helpee. So we know full well that the other person is feeling appreciative, supported, loved. And we know it’s because of our own act of kindness.

Yippee for helpees.

Eat Your Heart Out

I’ve written a few times recently about distributing food as a good deed. There’s a fundamental quality to feeding another human being. When you give food you’re meeting an essential need. You’re nourishing a body so that it can carry on. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt the heart of a household is in the kitchen. It’s where life literally is sustained.

Apparently life was also sustained on a Toronto transit vehicle yesterday, where I happened to notice an interaction between a man and woman who didn’t know each other. It was a dodgy bus on a dodgy bus route. Folks are known to avoid this route just because of its dodginess. But sometimes dodginess and diversity go hand in hand, and that’s when things get interesting.

A guy in one of the front seats was talking loudly and unabashedly to the lady opposite him. They clearly belonged to very different demographics, but he struck up a conversation with her all the same. After a minute or so he asked her if she liked rice cakes. He said he had rice cakes. He said he could give her rice cakes.

The woman tittered, clutched her oversized purse, turned down the offer. Then he said lightheartedly, “Are you too good for them?” and at this she broke out into gales of laughter. In fact they had a grand chuckle together. When I looked the next time, the lady was putting a bag of rice cakes into her big purse and thanking him repeatedly.

“I give food to the homeless, you know,” he said. They smiled at each other convivially. He passed her a few packets of microwaveable popcorn. She seemed pleased.

After only a few minutes I reached my destination and got off the bus (“Follow the leader,” the man commented when I passed him with my daughter and two friends in tow). Later I wondered what had compelled this unselfconscious man to give food to this woman. Had he been roaming the city all day, looking for people he could nourish? Or was it a sudden impulse? Why did he choose this lady, who didn’t exactly look hungry but clearly appreciated the groceries? Did he have particularly keen instincts for targeting those in need?

Or was it just because, on a dodgy bus taking a dodgy bus route, the odds were pretty high that any fellow transit riders would be grateful for a gift of food?

Let’s call this a little food for thought.

On a complete side note, I will be speaking on the topic of good deeds on an upcoming morning television show. My appearance will kick off their short series on giving, so I’m excited! Details to follow soon.

To Every Thing There is a Season… But That Can Change

As we continue the countdown to the holidays, there’s a noticeable spike in good deeds. I don’t mean the holding-the-door, complimenting-the-coiffeur sort of good deeds. I’m talking about those random acts of kindness that make it to the papers.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance, anonymous donors have been combing the streets, handing out hundred-dollar bills from their own pockets to strangers who look like they need it. In Ottawa, after a university student’s cellphone was stolen out of her hands (she happens to be blind), a group of Rogers employees decided to pool their Christmas bonuses to buy her a new one. Another news outlet reports that at a ski resort in Newry, Maine, 250 do-gooders got onto the slopes for free last Sunday, so long as they wore a Santa outfit and donated ten dollars each towards holiday gifts for local needy children.

They’re terrific stories. And in the month of December, there are lots of them. Which is also wonderful. We know that observing acts of altruism makes us more inclined to behave altruistically ourselves. So far, so good.

But I’d love to start a new trend: Gabbing about good deeds in January. And then chatting about charity in February. And then conversing about kindnesses in March. And so on through the year before I run out of witty examples of alliteration.

Stay with me. This blog doesn’t go on hiatus after the holidays. We’ll go on yapping about the topic of giving all year ’round.

Two Little Words

Two days ago I took a midday break from my home office to carry out a few errands the old-fashioned way: on foot. We live a kilometre away from a convenient stretch of shops and eateries, and I enjoy the walk. Somewhere between shopping for soap and picking up pencils I came to a major intersection, about to cross to the east, when I noticed a wad of discarded newspapers in the street, pages fluttering in the wind.

The traffic light was on my side, so I stepped into the street, scooped down and picked up the papers. A thin, scruffy-looking middle-aged man who was waiting to cross southward caught my eye: “Thank you,” he said. It was a nice gesture. I nodded to him before dumping the papers in a recycling receptacle a few metres away.

Of course by the time I returned to the corner, my opportunity to cross the street had passed. Scruffy approached me. “You know,” he said, “that for every good thing you do there’s a price to pay. You missed your light.”

“I don’t mind,” I assured him.

Then he did something that surprised me: He put his hand on my arm and said, beaming, “Well, thank you for doing that.”

Thus it was that when I turned back to wait for my light I was smiling. My mood was suddenly soaring. In my new Reader’s Digest article about why we’re nice, one of the psychologists I interviewed pointed out: “Thanking people is a good deed… just by saying thank you, you’re giving back.” It’s true, I was thinking now. I may be the person who picked up the papers, but it felt like I’d just been given something better.

A few seconds later I looked around. The intersection was empty of other pedestrians.

Just like that, the man had vanished.

It was a bit of a freaky moment for someone who doesn’t exactly believe in angels. I contemplated this interesting turn of events for another couple of seconds – until Scruffy came back out of the video store across the street.

So chances are, he was probably just a regular mortal after all. But the fact remains, he managed to make my day with two little words.

How to Share Christmas

Not everyone celebrates Christmas. But for those who do, but who simply can’t afford to fill up all that real estate under the Christmas tree, this time of year can really drag on the spirit.

Yet what a lift it can be if, on the other hand, others step in to help make Christmas a genuine season of joy. Programs like Adopt-a-Family and Share Christmas, often organized by neighbourhood centres and non-profit groups, work like this: A family in need is identified, maybe a single mom with her children, or a family coping with disabilities, or a low-income senior couple. A list is made up of specific items that they could not otherwise afford, like age-appropriate gifts and books for the kids, but also food, winter coats and even personal hygiene products.

Donors never meet or learn the names of the people they’ve helped. So they don’t get a hug, a smile of gratitude or even a mumbled thank you. Do they still get a buzz?

Ask people who’ve already decided to shell out for wool socks and canned stews and the Twilight Series. Every year my friend Anne’s book club adopts a family for the holidays through the Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre in east-end Toronto. Book club queen Vicki, who organizes it, told me: “I believe it’s important to give back to the community, especially during Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, when we tend to eat and live to excess.” Good point. Vicki also thinks getting involved this way is a valuable reminder to appreciate what we have.

Another friend, Lisa, is joining forces with her own fellow book-club members to support an elderly woman who, she says, “lives in poverty with her little dog and very little else.” She adds: “We’re happy to do it… Book club girlz rule again!” They sure do.

Happily there’s no written rule that you must be girlz in a book club to participate in a Share Christmas program. So even if you happen to eschew books and cocktails and gossip (although I personally can’t imagine a world without any of those things), you can sign up to support a family or lonely neighbour for the holidays. Find a program in your community through the magic that is Google.

What’s my pick? In the past I’ve supported the Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario’s Holiday Fund, which provides gifts, groceries, and supplies to a family affected by spinal cord injury. Those who know a bit about me know why this hits close to home. But the difference is that my family is already anticipating loot under the tree and turkey for dinner. Share Christmas programs give a whole lot of other people something to look forward to, too.