Monthly Archives: February 2011

I’m Packing My Bags

Who knew drinking milk could help earthquake survivors and third-world medical patients? When my mom was in town for a visit recently, she asked me to start collecting our used milk bags instead of trashing them.

The particular bags in demand are the colourful outer plastic bags that hold the three one-litre pouches of milk. Believe it or not, these bags can be cut into strips, then crocheted into sleeping mats that are washable, bug-resistant, durable and somewhat cushioned. They can also be made into useful tote bags. It was news to me, but milk bag groups have been cropping up all over Ontario.

It takes hundreds of bags to make one mat. That’s why my mom, who has a friend doing the mat-making, asked me to keep mine. I said I’d spread the word a little further. I sent an e-mail out to folks in my community.

The response was immediate. Within 24 hours, several neighbours had written back to promise they’d save bags. Someone else began setting up additional collection sites at a school and her church. Yet another of my friends, a mom of three milk-guzzling kids under the age of six, wrote: “We easily go through three bags a week, so this will definitely ease my conscience and do some good at the same time!”

I think that’s the key behind this swift outpouring (if you’ll pardon the pun). Saving bags is such an easy thing to do, and yet it makes a difference in two important ways: It reduces garbage – always a great thing – plus it helps people far, far away. These are individuals we normally could never reach. When you hold something in your hands that can be a part of saving a life or comforting a trauma victim, you feel connected. And probably just a little more powerful in the face of global disasters.

Curious to know what the finished products look like? Check out this short video. And if you feel motivated, drink your milk. Save your bags.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Modern automation certainly makes a lot of tasks faster and cheaper. But for folks with disabilities, it can sometimes suck. Just ask my husband. That’s because automation removes the people factor. There’s no one to help you, and machines aren’t very accommodating. Automatic banking machines, unstaffed parking garages, vending machines… they’re all pretty useless if you can’t use your hands well, or get close enough in your wheelchair. And self-serve gas stations? Forget about it. My husband can tell you where every full-service gas station is located within a twenty-mile radius of our house, because his mobility depends on it. But, sadly, this breed of service station is becoming extinct.

One of these rare oases (oasises? oasi?) operates a few kilometres south of where we live. When my husband drove there recently to gas up the car, he was met with a warm reception. “How are you, sir? I haven’t seen you in a long time!” the attendant gushed, smiling. It was a Sunday and business was quiet, so he took care to clean my husband’s windshield – and even the side mirror, when asked.

Then came the clincher. My husband needed his tires topped up. Consider all the steps to this that require nimble fingers: popping quarters into the air machine, twisting off the valve cap, reaching to hook the air hose to the inner tube, testing the tire pressure. My hubby can’t do any of these. After a microsecond, the gas attendant nodded: Absolutely, he could take care of it.

“For you, I make a special service,” he said in his accented English, adding: “For nobody else I do this.”

Today, I’m sending a shout-out to every one of us who makes a special service. Whether we hold a door for someone today, pick up litter, shovel a sidewalk or tell a stranger that her baby is adorable, our special service will always make a difference.

No matter how automated our society becomes, there’s nothing like the human touch. Thanks anyway, Mr. Roboto.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Up for a little self-analysis? I came across a diverting online tool the other day. Now, I’m not usually one for those relatively meaningless quizzes. I don’t tend to feel all that fulfilled by establishing, once and for all, which Jersey Shore character I am or who my celebrity boyfriend might be. (Besides, it’s already quite clear that my TV-star soulmate is Josh Holloway.)

But this quiz, posted on planet Oprah, poses the question: “What Kind of Volunteer Are You?” Of course it grabbed my attention, so I dutifully responded to the five multiple-choice questions. Not all of them seem to have a direct connection to volunteering, but apparently they reveal critical personality traits.

My results? Apparently I’m a mix of the Untapped Volunteer and the Inspired Volunteer, with zero tendencies towards the New Breed Volunteer (which is okay, because that one just sounds like some kind of fancy dog). And when I read the descriptions, they actually do reflect my life somewhat. Although I suppose it could just be the horoscope phenomenon.

What I like most, though, about this quiz is the range of ideas offered up in the final analysis. Read through it: There are several suggestions as to where your passion, skills and lifestyle might find a fit.

As I’ve written before, there’s not much point in volunteering if you don’t find it engaging. You’re not likely to last, and you may not give it your all. So I’m all for any gimmick, even an online quiz, that can help you discover your niche.

Vote Yes for 50 Good Deeds!

Happy news! This blog has been selected as a finalist in the national 2011 Best Health Blog Awards. It’s one of five blog finalists in the “Embrace Life” category. If you are one of the 50 Good Deeds fans who submitted a nomination, a thousand thank you’s!

Now’s the voting period. If you believe in this blog, you can cast your vote – once a day, every day, if you’re so inclined – from now until March 21. (When you vote, you’re also boosting your chances of winning a magazine subscription for yourself.) You don’t have to register to vote, you just have to type your name and e-mail address.

If 50 Good Deeds gets enough votes, I won’t exactly be awarded a brand-new sports car or a tropical vacation. But my blog will be promoted online and in Best Health magazine. And if that means a little more inspiration gets spread around, I think it’s well worth it!

Click here to cast today’s vote for 50 Good Deeds.

Shave and a Haircut

One thing you should know about my friend Shawne: She’s so bubbly, she could be bottled and sold as champagne. She’s also fiercely strong, both mentally and physically (you don’t want to get in the way of her tiny-but-tough, size-three feet when they’re kickboxing in your direction). And she’s a little off the beaten track, in the best possible way. Few women would willingly go for a buzz cut, and then gush about it… but that’s Shawne. On Friday, in Alberta where she lives, she donated over 12 inches of her brown curls to be made into a wig for someone with cancer. And Shawne loves her new ’do – scroll down for before and after pics.

It was all part of my friend’s efforts to raise funds and awareness for cancer research. When she found out her niece was planning to participate in a fundraising event at school (little Ellen first dyed her hair pink and then got shaved almost bald, because she rocks), Shawne decided to join in. She discovered her hair was long enough to donate – barely. “It would not leave much left,” she says, “but as I had just lost a family friend and another friend was battling cancer, I was not too worried.” And quintessential Shawne looked on the bright side: “As one friend put it… it will make me a more aerodynamic/faster runner. Whoohoo!!!!” Whoohoo indeed.

Then came the abrupt loss of Roxanne, Shawne’s friend with cancer. The last time the ladies shared a coffee, Shawne had told Roxanne of her plans to lose her hair. “She looked at me, shook her head and said you’re nuts, but I love you, Shawne… I will remember those words.”

This week, cancer charities in Alberta will be receiving $1650 in support that Shawne managed to raise. (Niece Ellen raised another $450!) Not only that, but some Canadian with cancer will have a beautiful new head of hair, thanks in part to my sweet pal.

“I don’t want to lose any more friends, so giving up my hair is easy in comparison,” Shawne told me. “This started out as a way to support my niece, and became much more personal.”

Photo of Shawne before her haircut

Say goodbye to those curly, curly locks...

Shawne after the haircut

So very chic!

Lookin’ For Fun and Feelin’ Lazy…

Whew! We’ve made it through 11 days of February, and that’s saying something. Since I’m feeling rather sleepy, dopey and lazy (I think I just named three of the seven dwarves), I figure it’s a good day to talk about doing good while barely lifting a finger.

This isn’t all my idea. I found it on some guy’s website – which I won’t link to, because the site itself was a tad cheesy. But the concept is engaging: Lazy acts of kindness. For all those people who feel too generally wiped out to make positive change in the world.

On his web page, the guy suggests you let another driver pull out in front of you in traffic. Or make a helpful but halfhearted reach for an item another person has dropped, to show your good intentions (I guess it’s the thought that counts). These are acts that require little or no energy output, but can still make another person feel better.

If I think about it, I’m the queen of easy-peasy deeds. When I see a water main leaking (twice and counting, in the past six months), I don’t roll up my sleeves, drill through the asphalt and set about to repair it. I just dial a number and tell someone. When I spot a suspicious character out in public breaking a law (again, twice in the past little while), I don’t confront the guy or make a citizen’s arrest. I call the police. When the world caves in for someone I care about, I don’t even begin to think I can fix everything that has gone wrong. Instead, I give her a listening ear and a hug.

Last night, my dinner companion sent her compliments to the chef – we didn’t even have to stop eating for that. Got any more ideas? How can you make a difference without breaking a sweat? I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’ll try to live by the credo posted on the website I visited, because it makes me smile: “We should help out a fellow human being whenever we can… even if it’s by the laziest means possible.”

What Would YOU Do?

Right. What if you saw a stranger viciously screaming at the woman he was with? Would you ignore them? Would you step in? This was my friend’s dilemma on Saturday afternoon. She was on a sidewalk downtown, and the couple were at a nearby streetcar stop. The only other person at the stop was standing as far away from the ragestorm as she could.

Later, my friend posted on Facebook: “What could/should I have done???” (The extra question marks are hers, and serve to illustrate the quandary she felt herself in.)

Jumping into a potentially violent situation doesn’t always work out. Last year, I interviewed a B.C. woman for a magazine story on good deeds. She had immediately intervened when she saw a young lady being violently mugged. It was instinctive, she told me, and she didn’t take time to consider the danger to herself. Then, one of the assailants hit her on the head with a grocery bag of soup cans. And she was so severely injured, she thought she’d reached the end of the line.

For another magazine article a couple of years ago, I researched the stories of a range of people who had put themselves at risk to help a stranger who was being attacked. Disturbingly, many of these would-be saviours had been seriously hurt and even killed as a consequence. An RCMP constable told me these violent situations are too unpredictable. She added, “The RCMP would never encourage a bystander to risk their own safety to intervene.” There may be other, safer ways to help that can still make a difference.

But we aren’t always thinking about sensible advice when these situations explode in front of us. Folks are often compelled to help. They say they couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t do something. (That is, unless you’re Seinfeld’s George Costanza – who, when a small kitchen fire started, quickly trampled a bunch of seniors and children in his haste to save his own skin.)

Back to my friend on the sidewalk. Her Facebook buddies offered various suggestions for actions she could have taken, from barging right in and interrupting the tumultuous tête-à-tête, to going straight to the police. (Interestingly, one of the friends who voted for police sounded half-apologetic: “I know, that’s wimpy, but you never really know what the person will do.”)

For my friend some of the advice was moot, as she uses a wheelchair and the streetcar area wasn’t accessible, so she couldn’t have gotten close to the situation. But clearly she was fretting about how she could have helped all the same.

I love what this says about human nature. Our instincts to save other people are so strong, we feel guilty and remorseful when we don’t get involved. Even when the experts say not to. Even when it would mean putting ourselves in grave danger.

I don’t think any of us can really know what we’d do in that kind of situation until we’re in it. But I’m willing to bet there are more of us who would dive in, or at least dial 911, than stampede our way out the door. It’s just the way we’re made.

Willing and Able? You Bet

Did you hear the one about the good Samaritan with the spinal cord injury? This affair happened back in November. But I’ve recently seen the story circulating again on Facebook, so I know it continues to captivate people. A man tried to spend a counterfeit bill in a Vancouver convenience store. When the female store owner identified the fake fifty and refused to return it, the guy got angry. He shoved his way behind the counter, threatened to steal cash, and started snatching what he could.

Lucky that Larry Skopnik, a regular store customer, happened to roll onto the scene. He swiftly grabbed the robber and wrestled him to the ground. A couple of other customers held the guy until cops came.

Besides being a hero, Skopnik happens to be paraplegic. In the tussle he was pulled out of his wheelchair. But he never lost his grip on the bad guy. He says it was all about making sure the store owner didn’t get hurt. She’s eternally grateful.

“Just because I’m in a chair doesn’t mean I can’t stand up and do what’s right, even though I can’t stand up,” Skopnik told news reporters in this video. “It’s all about doing the right thing.”

Good for you, Larry: Not just for stepping in, but for pushing the point that every single one of us has the ability to make a difference. One of the widespread beliefs about people with disabilities is that they’re generally helpless, more often the recipient of care and compassion than the deliverer of such. Not true, of course. I know folks with disabilities who’ve been incredible do-gooders, from offering a cheery word of support when it’s needed to creating national non-profit foundations from the ground up for vast social change.

My helpful husband is quadriplegic. And his days of hand-to-hand combat may be over, but nevertheless he has come to the rescue in dicey emergencies. Once, when he witnessed a taxi driver across the street being pulled from his cab and pummeled, my husband drove his van in a U-turn, came up behind them, put on his high beams and blared the horn. It was enough to drive away the assailant. Hubby has also called 911 numerous times when others have been in need.

I guess the moral of the story is that anyone can do a good deed, regardless of ability. I once heard a beautiful story about my colleague’s son Joshua, who had multiple disabilities. When a teacher was planning the makeup of his class at the start of the school year, Joshua was his first pick. Why? Because he knew he’d end up with kinder, more compassionate students if this kid was in his class. Some people might have looked at little Josh and made up their minds that there was no way he could make a contribution. How wrong they would have been.

And that, my friends, is the wrap-up for the week. We’ve had our ups and downs, but stories like these remind us that we’re all in it for each other. And that’s something to hang our hats on.

The Future is Now

My family has had a weekful of distressing news. Two people we care about each suddenly and shockingly lost a close relative. Both friends are extremely kind, thoughtful and gentle women, and both are just now going through the worst kind of terrible. From where I sit, unable to do one single thing to bring back these most cherished family members for my friends, it’s a helpless, lost feeling. So today’s blog post is a bit of a ramble, kind of in line with my wandering thought processes.

Here’s one place I’ve rambled to: I’m thinking about a book another friend was telling me about over dinner the other day. She just finished Mitch Albom’s 2006 novel For One More Day. This isn’t a book I’ve read – one Albom story seems to have been enough for me, no offense to Mitch – but the premise is intriguing. If you could have one more day with a loved one who has died, how would you spend it? What would you talk about? Would you resolve festering resentments, would you let go of all that tightly packed baggage, or would you blurt out the sweeter stuff you’d always meant to say?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve occasionally had remarkably vivid dreams about lost loved ones, dreams in which they were indeed back for one more day. And it did feel like a second chance. One that I’d believed I would never have.

Guess what I’ve been thinking? Maybe our second chances are right now. Yep, before the first chance has even ended. So this is my recommendation: Go and track down your loved ones. Go ahead. Traipse down to the basement where your spouse is walking the treadmill, or to the dining room where your kids are working on their school projects, or to the den where your brother is channel flipping. Hug the ones you love. And go ahead and blurt out all that sweet stuff we mentioned earlier.

Call it today’s good deed. That’s what I did.

In the words of that timeless poet John Lennon: “Wherever you are, you are here.” Next time not so maudlin, I promise.