One Hundred Dollar Backpack
Every day on my way to class, I see the same faces—on the corner of an intersection, sitting in the shade of one of our city’s many bridges, walking back and forth down the same stretch of road, and stopping to rest on an open bench. Most of the faces I see are tired and well-aged. Exposure to the elements of the seasons has left their skin tightly wrinkled and toughened up. Sunspots dapple their cheeks and permanent furrows rest pensively above their brows. They belong to real people with real stories that many would find difficult to hear.
There is an old woman who is tall and lean. She has mousey, shoulder length hair that frizzes a bit on the ends and hangs to the sides of her long, thin face. Her skin is tan and leathery. She dresses in layers, even during the summer, and holds out a torn piece of cardboard for drivers to see at one of several possible intersections. There is a man with a small dog who comes to rest on a particular cement bed every now and then. His white-grey hair has slowly traveled from crown to chin over the past year and he is most often seen sleeping while his dog keeps watch. There was a veteran once also, who stood at the same intersection as the old, tan woman. He had his own piece of cardboard with black letters that bled in the rain.
The person I see most often is Walter. He does small jobs like picking up coffee orders for local offices to pay for his bus fare, and his preferred place to sit happens to be at the end of the same bridge I walk across every day. He usually wears a baseball hat, an old polo shirt, and long slacks with small holes in the knees and around the ankles. He walks with a limp and often stares out at the river thoughtfully, but always has a smile on his face for me when we exchange our morning greeting. “Hello, little miss sunshine! Good to see you today, God bless!”
We didn’t always extend a greeting to each other. I used to turn my head towards my phone or stare out at the river so I didn’t have to make eye contact. I’d shake my head to admit to my embarrassment that I had nothing to give. I don’t know what inspired me to do it, but one day I simply said “good morning” to Walter and his eyes lit up. He wasn’t invisible. I don’t often have cash on hand, so I started to pack extra granola bars and water bottles to pass out. We started to recognize each other over time and even if I have nothing to give on a certain day, we always exchange our usual “good morning.” I had thought for a long time about something more that I could give Walter and the others that would go beyond a small snack, the occasional dollars for bus fare, and acknowledgment.
Service is one of our core values, and every month each employee at Found Advisors performs an act of service in the community, as a team or on their own. This month, we were each given $100 to spend as we chose on random acts of kindness. Inspired by my commute, I decided to use my $100 to build personalized care packages based on the needs that Walter had expressed in the past and ideas from the products homeless shelters in the area commonly ask for. I bought three backpacks from 5 below and filled them with food, hygiene products, and simple entertainment like playing cards and crossword puzzles. Each backpack cost a little over $30 and was filled with many of the same things that I take for granted everyday—things like shampoo, soap, toilet paper, band-aids, food, toothpaste, toothbrushes, nail trimmers, pencils and journals.
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There is nothing that can describe the joy of giving something to someone who has nothing; I have been able to give out two of my three backpacks so far. The receivers have both thanked me. They sit a little taller and look noticeably healthier. Walter was one of them. I put a new baseball cap in his bag and noticed him wearing it the very next day. As I neared the end of the bridge, he reached out a hand to wave me down and personally thanked me for giving him the supplies to wash his clothes and shave his face. He hadn’t been able to do it in months and he felt so fresh and confident. Walter has truly taught me to appreciate the smallest things in life. The next time you find yourself walking by one of these people, don’t turn your head or apologize for not having anything. Say a simple “good morning” and see how far two words can go.