Monthly Archives: April 2011

Do Try This at Home (And Be Thankful You’ve Got One)

A caring videographer from California has made it his business to meet invisible people and turn them visible. And now his efforts have helped a homeless Canadian find a place to live.

For two and a half years, Mark Horvath has interviewed and filmed dozens of homeless people and shared their stories on his video blog (or “vlog,” as the young kids are calling it these days). Not long ago he posted a clip about Donny, taken on a freeze-your-face-off night in Calgary. In the video, Mark, who once lived on the streets himself, appears gobsmacked that Donny’s planning to sleep outside in an alleyway on sheets of cardboard. “It breaks my heart,” Mark says.

But after Donny’s video recently went public, in stepped the Calgary Homeless Foundation with a fix. This community agency hunted the streets to find Donny and set him up with a basement apartment – his first home in 21 years. Check out the housewarming video: just 8 seconds in, you get an exceedingly concrete sign of Donny’s exuberance. Mark’s reaction is lower key: “I’d love to take credit for that,” he writes, “but the truth is, it is the community that makes the difference.”

But by shining a spotlight on homeless people, Mark is lighting a fire under the community’s proverbial butt. His videos start conversations; they stir action. It’s worth taking the time to watch a few of the clips on his vlog. (I persisted past his tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: “WARNING – these videos will mess you up.”) What resonated most with me was the strong compassion expressed by the newly visible: When asked what his three wishes would be, a man named Randy includes a bid for world peace and a wish “that we could all just love each other.” Another guy, Gerald, talks about making choices based on morality, and says he tries to “bring out the honour in every man.”

Mark, if by “mess you up” you mean “make you want to hug someone,” then your warning is apt. People: watch his videos.

P.S. It’s my anniversary (sort of)! The first day of May marks five years since I started my good-deed-a-day project. I’m sending thick slices of virtual cake and gaudy party hats to all the readers and subscribers who visit this space and keep the theme going. Bonne fête!

The Case of Citizen Stealth

If you’re a regular 50 Good Deeds reader, you’ll remember that Tuesday is garbage pick-up day on my street. And yes, hold on to your hats, I’m about to launch into another discussion about rubbish and its relationship to kindness.

This time, it has to do with the mysterious helper who drops in at our driveway once a week. Specifically, the (presumable) neighbour waits until our garbage bin has been emptied by the city truck, sneaks over and wheels it partway back to our garage.

I say “sneaks,” because I’ve never seen the mystery wo/man in action. But I’ve actually heard this happening most Tuesdays. It’s hard to miss it: The mega-sized plastic bins that every Toronto household is now obliged to use for refuse are not light on their wheels. And if you live in this city, you’ve probably grown accustomed to the rumble-against-asphalt that’s the telltale sound of one of these bins being dragged from storage spot to pick-up spot and back again.

So almost every week I’ve half-listened to the sound of this good deed going on, while I’ve been working at my desk or making a phone call. And almost every week, when I go outside later to find the bin retrieved on my behalf, I realize that I’ve missed the good Samaritan once again. And I wonder anew who the kind soul might be.

We are in fact blessed with the world’s best neighbours, so it could be any number of people. But few are actually bustling about outside at that hour of the day. I like to think it’s one particular couple who live close by, have few friends on the street and keep to themselves. They’re home all day, so they’d have ample opportunity to commit the secret act.

But these two are not exactly gregarious, and aren’t known in the neighbourhood for their crusading kindnesses. So what makes me suspect it could be them? I guess I like to think that everyone, even the most reclusive, has it in them to commit a small thoughtful deed. And it proves we’re all connected, even in a most minor way. I’m happy to keep considering that possibility.

Sure, I could keep an ear open every Tuesday for that familiar rumbling sound. I could dash outside the moment I hear it, and I’d have my answer. Next week, maybe I will.

But today… I don’t think so.

Feel-Good Flicks

It’s a long weekend – feel like taking in a movie? I caught a few minutes of a Nicolas Cage flick last week, that one from the 1990s in which he wins the lottery and splits the proceeds with a waitress. It’s called It Could Happen to You. (Could it? Really?) And while I don’t want to spoil the ending, let’s just say that for someone who takes an interest in random acts of kindness (and revenge on the rather self-centered characters – come on people, let’s ’fess up), the story scores points.

That made me think about other examples of good deeds on film. There’s Pay It Forward (2000), in which the “I-see-dead-people” kid comes up with a scheme to perform kindnesses to others who will in turn pay the favours forward, instead of paying them back.

I also loved quirky Bill Murray in 1993’s Groundhog Day. Murray rarely disappoints – it’s impossible to overemphasize how much I adored his cameo in Zombieland – and in Groundhog Day, he’s true to form. In this movie Murray’s stuck in a kind of time loop until he can improve his character. And, of course, acts of kindness do factor into the plot, big-time.

Then there’s Defending Your Life (1991), an Albert Brooks film I’ve only seen once. As I recall, the theme of character-building ran through this story as well. And can I just take a time-out here to ponder a point: What’s with this 1990s obsession with good deeds? Or am I forgetting a few gems on kindnesses from other eras?

So I’m turning it over to you. What movies do you recall or recommend that have to do with helping others, or making a difference?

Please feel free to chime in. Most of us have got a four-day weekend ahead of us, and a DVD player in the den just waiting for a good time.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

When you have a family member with a disability, there are a number of extra tasks that get added to the household to-do list. Some only take seconds: Must clear boots away from doorway before husband gets home and crushes all footwear in his path with his wheelchair. Next: must wipe up messy mud tracks brought in by aforementioned wheelchair – and feel grateful that mud tracks did not get smeared across recently relocated boots.

One of the more time-consuming, sometimes frustrating and even invasive jobs we must take on is the recruiting, screening, interviewing, hiring and training of attendants to help out my husband. Because hubby can’t walk or use his hands well, he hires people to assist him with tasks like washing and dressing. At any given time we have three or four employees working various shifts in our household. And it’s the nature of the industry that, from time to time, one of them graduates from school or starts a family or moves away and we’re stuck with the big business of replacing them.

The process is not entirely painful. We meet some pretty interesting people from a variety of backgrounds. And there are even a few laughs: One recent applicant, lacking perhaps in a few points on professionalism, sent us her resume from an e-mail address called SEXY LOVE. My computer, naturally, flagged it as junk. My husband’s reaction: “Oh, that’s a keeper!”

I certainly hope he meant the application itself and not the candidate.

Last week we received a resume from a guy overseas who’s seeking a sponsored live-in position in Canada. Thanks to the Internet, it’s not unusual for us to get applications like this. But the tone of this young man’s message stood out. His mom, back home in his country of origin, has been diagnosed with colon cancer. He’s studying to be a nurse but desperate for a paid job so he can support her. “Hope you can help me with this,” he wrote. “I really need it now. I’m begging you I know I don’t have to beg but I need to I need to have work I need to help my mom… I don’t know what to do how to find an employer there in Canada. Please help me…”

Sure, it could have been some kind of scam, but it honestly didn’t read like one. I couldn’t ignore it. So I wrote back: I was very sorry to hear of his mother’s diagnosis. I was also sorry that we can’t sponsor a live-in employee to come from another country. But I’d keep my eyes and ears open, and pass on his name and resume if I heard of something suitable.

Twelve hours later came a reply with a thank you and a message that touched me: “Even though you don’t know me at all and you have the choice not to reply still you did and I can feel the sympathy coming from your email,” he wrote. “…The email of yours eases some of the pain I’m feeling right now and not losing hope for I will find someone who will employ me… thank you so much again…”

It had only taken me a minute to write to this young student. And there are all kinds of other and possibly bigger good deeds we do that help people on the other side of the world, like making donations after a natural disaster, or sponsoring an impoverished family.

But rarely do we hear directly from a person we’ve helped when he or she is thousands of miles away. And that, I think, is why this thank-you note felt like a gift. These connections, even across oceans, are what tell us we made a difference.

And we all have the need to make a difference. Sometimes it means writing to someone far, far away. Sometimes it just means moving a pair of boots in the front hall.

Today, Get Trashed

So what are you doing this afternoon at two o’clock? No, I’m not hitting on you. What I’m wondering is whether your city has organized a twenty-minute makeover. Mine has. So have several other Ontario cities.

The deal is that when the hour hits two, you grab a trash bag, step outside your school, home or place of work and spend a bit of time picking up whatever bits of litter have landed around you.

I’m frequently harping on the fact that it only takes a few minutes to make a difference. In this case, it’s just twenty minutes. That’s not a huge amount of time to steal from your staff meeting or algebra lesson (some would argue that both are unproductive anyway). Multiply that by the population of your town, and it means potentially millions of minutes collectively spent making your community greener, healthier and more appealing.

You may be wearing dirty gloves instead of a superhero cape. But by cleaning up your corner of the world, you’ll surely have an impact.

I’m working at home today. So when two o’clock hits I’ll be out in my own neighbourhood, scooping up the food wrappers and scraps of paper that surfaced as the snow receded. I live on a quiet street, so there won’t exactly be a party going on while I do this.

But if I know you’re out there somewhere too, I’ll feel the vibe.

Greatest American Hero

“Believe it or not, I’m walking on air…” A Stanford University professor emeritus has found that fully one in five Americans qualifies as a “hero.” Not as in sandwich.

As far as I know, there’s no actual lab test for heroism. At least not yet. But Philip Zimbardo and his research team gave questionnaires to 4,000 American men and women that asked: “Have you ever done something that other people – not necessarily you yourself – considered a heroic act or deed?” Twenty percent responded yes. Over half of them had come to someone’s aid in a dangerous emergency. Others had donated an organ, made a sacrifice for a stranger, or stood up for justice even when it meant a risk to themselves.

While I don’t know how our Canadian rate of heroism stacks up against that of our southern neighbours, I’d like to think it’s not shabby. Pretty good, in fact. I regularly hear about folks in this country who have faced peril or given up something important in order to help another person. Heck, I see it right in my own home: My husband willingly eats my cooking every night (kidding – I know my way around a kitchen!).

Zimbardo believes that heroes inspire us and give us hope for the planet. So he has launched a non-profit organization in California called Heroic Imagination Project that trains ordinary young people to become effective and wise heroes. As he told USA Today: “Heroes are really the soul of a nation. They represent what is best in human nature.”

You can find out more about Zimbardo’s work here (and then please get back to me – I really want to know if there’s a name for his particularly stylish ’stache).

Bagged Another One

Back in February I mentioned that I had started collecting plastic milk bags. My mother planned to pass them on to her friend, who is making them into sleeping mats. These waterproof, bug-resistant mats go to people in need all over the world, while reducing plastic in landfill because it upcycles the bags. On this blog I mentioned I’d received a supersized response from the community, including several neighbours and an entire school.

I can’t tell you how many bags I’ve now received, mainly because I doubt I can count that high. But as of today there are four cardboard boxes in my basement stuffed full of the things. And more are still pouring in (ah, I just can’t get away from these milk puns!).

Originally the bags were directed to my mom’s pal. But then Mom, who’s always been a crafty sort of person, picked up the challenge – and her crochet hook. She asked me to search online for a how-to manual. I knew once she put her mind to it she’d churn these out like a pro. When I was growing up my mom sewed me clothes, knitted me sweaters and crocheted me numerous intricate little Christmas decorations. So what’s one or two rectangular sleeping mats? And have I already said that my mom’s the ultimate good-deed guru?

I sent her these instructions. The result: Mom’s now almost finished her first mat. Check her out in the pic below, beaming proudly over her new project.

Now she’s hankering for her next milk-bag delivery. It’s kind of ironic, considering that she can’t stand drinking milk herself. But clearly lots of people around here are guzzling the good stuff, because the bags are still coming.

My mom is holding her partly finished milk bag mat

Good on ya, Mom!

Paved with Good Intentions

A few months ago, I stumbled upon what I thought was a pretty sweet story. A man in New Jersey announced that he was going to do 50 good deeds to celebrate turning 50. And he was off to a great start; at his birthday bash he raised thousands of dollars for a soup kitchen. Some local media got wind of his plans, and ran articles about it.

When it comes to good deeds I, of course, have a particular affinity for the number 50. I asked the guy, by e-mail, whether he’d be willing to talk about his experience for this blog. No response. I sent another note. Still nothing.

Now either the fellow didn’t get my messages, or he’s too shy to talk – not all that likely, since he invited no fewer than 200 people to his party. Not to mention his particular profession demands a certain amount of social savvy.

Third possibility: His plans didn’t go as expected. It happens. There was another time when I came across the web page of a woman so inspired by one of my articles that she herself intended to do daily good deeds, blogging all about it. The blog was updated regularly for a couple of weeks… and then went totally off the grid.

One thing I hear a lot from people is: “I plan to start doing a kindness a day,” or: “I am trying to give more.” Their words are bursting with good intentions. All the power to them if they pull it off, but it doesn’t always happen. After all, most New Year’s resolutions are broken by March. So why should a pledge to do more good be any different? But the difference, I think, between promising to be kinder and vowing to shed twenty pounds is that you probably feel guiltier about dropping the ball on the kindnesses.

Time for true confessions: When I first had the idea to do a good deed a day, I thought I’d do it for an entire year. Then I thought I could stick it out for a few months. Finally I settled on 50 days. Why? A good deed every day seemed like quite a commitment, and I wanted to be sure I could follow through. Couldn’t face the guilt of failing. The irony, of course, is that 50 days changed my habits for the long term. By now, I’ve probably been doing a good deed most days for close to 1800 days. I never expected to be at this point. It shows that even a relatively short-term commitment to kindness can be life-changing.

Coming back to the 50-year-old do-gooder in New Jersey, I don’t want to leave the impression that he definitely bailed out on his 50 acts of kindness. It could simply be that with all this guy’s fundraising, flower planting and food drives… he’s just too stinking busy to talk.