When I see someone on the side of the road holding a sign that says something like, “Will Work for Food,” my usual response is to quickly look the other way. I don’t consider myself heartless, but I think that if a person is deserving of help, there must be aid available from a social services agency or someplace else. And, besides, I have my own family to worry about, and certainly don’t have time to stop and hear that person’s sad story.
And if my conscience still nags at me, I recall the time a very persuasive man with a foreign accent stopped me on the street and told such an amazing story about his loss of cash and desperate need for emergency funds that I gave him $20, only to return the next day to see him spinning the same story for someone else. And then there was the money I gave a young woman whose car ran out of gas in a supermarket parking lot, leaving her stranded while penniless. When I came out of the supermarket, she was telling the same hard-luck story to others when she wasn’t off laughing with her friends.
I don’t like being taken for a sucker, but I remember walking down a street in downtown Los Angeles years ago with a fellow newspaper reporter who had a better attitude. A disheveled man with a drinking problem hit us up for money for food. I declined, but my friend gave him a few bucks. We knew the man probably wouldn’t buy a sandwich or clean himself up, but that didn’t matter. My friend had made a sad man happy for a moment.
Sometimes, that’s about all we can do. But it isn’t nothing, and it takes the right attitude—a willingness to be selfless and kind.
A group of young men have spent the summer traveling across the country in a motorhome trying to promote kindness, one good deed at a time. It is called the ARK Project Now with ARK standing for Acts of Random Kindness.
Alex Radelich, 21, started the project at the end of 2012 after viewing a movie, Evan Almighty, in which a character asks God how to change the world, and God replies, “One act of random kindness at a time.” Radelich enlisted the help of a few friends, acquired a motorhome to travel across the country and began surprising strangers with good deeds during spring and summer trips. The effort drew national media attention, including appearances on NBC’s “Today” and “The Steve Harvey Show.” The project also captured the attention of the RV industry, resulting this year in the donation of a 2015 Thor Ace motorhome from Thor Motor Coach, Lippert Components, Atwood Products, Patrick Industries, Dicor Corporation and Mito Corporation.
Radelich, who dropped out of Purdue University to start the project, was accompanied on this summer’s tour by Dalton Lemert, 21, and Jake Thatcher, 20. A documentary filmmaker, Ruth Newton, has traveled along to film the project, and others have joined the group from time to time.
This summer they traveled from Indiana east to New York, south to Florida, and west to California before heading back east. When I caught up with Radelich in July, he was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, at the 8,000-mile mark of a 10,000-mile journey. The group had distributed free ice cream in Baltimore, taken 41 children from a Boys and Girls Club in a low-income Florida neighborhood to Disney World, and passed out bottles of water in 110-degree heat in California
On their summer trip a year ago, they had raised $15,000, using $5,000 to pay expenses and leaving $10,000 for acts of kindness. This summer, although they had the gift of a new motorhome, they raised only $7,000 for the trip, leaving them strapped for cash. So they had to use a lot of ingenuity to perform good deeds.
In Central Park in New York City, Dalton Lemert sat beside a bench with a sign that said, “Tell me your story and I’ll give you a dollar.” It was an opportunity to meet interesting people and do them the kindness of listening. At Mission Beach in San Diego, they attached 20 dollar bills to a board with a sign that said: “Take what you need; give what you can.” Radelich said the board drew lots of attention, and at the end of the day there was $80 on it. They gave the money to a man who couldn’t pay his electric bill.
In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, they spotted a sign that said “Need $20 for Gas” and found a couple who had been living on the street while trying to gather $30 for bus tickets back to their home in Boone, North Carolina. The couple had come to Myrtle Beach to work but the man required surgeries and a long hospitalization that cost him his job, and the woman was jobless and pregnant. ARK Project Now got them bus tickets and a hotel room for the night.
In Redding, California, the crew spent the night at a homeless shelter. Radelich said it was one of the most memorable experiences of the trip, and he was especially impressed by two young men they met. One had parents who were on drugs, lived with grandparents until they died and lived in a foster home until being kicked out on turning 18. The other had come to Redding to go to school expecting to live with a friend, but that didn’t work out, and he landed in the homeless shelter. Both were looking for jobs, but didn’t have the required identification so the ARK group took them to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get identification cards and then to a mall to begin a job search.
The lesson learned was that everyone has a story to tell if you stop to listen. Jake Thatcher, who chronicles the trip on the project’s website, wrote, “Sleeping in the homeless shelter was one of the most surreal experiences of our lives. It really brought a whole new awareness and compassion for people in that situation…My eyes were really opened to just how normal these people are. They have life experiences, loved ones and great stories.”
On the ARK Project Now website is this question: “What would happen if kindness became normal?” To spread kindness, the group asks everyone it helps to reciprocate by paying forward with an act of kindness of their own. As the project’s website notes, “Every act of random kindness has the capacity to change someone’s life.”
Although the summer tour has ended, ARK Project Now will continue, but exactly in what form is unclear. Radelich said the challenge is to turn what has been seen as a “cute college project” into a lasting movement that can continue to grow. You can learn more at arkprojectnow.com. And maybe it will inspire you, as it did me, to do something nice the next time you see a stranger that could use a little help.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find “First Glance” online at rvlife.com.