Every Penny Helps

It was a warm September evening and I was out. I had met some friends for beverages and was now wandering the strip seeking the next adventure. And that’s when I saw him. Piercing blue eyes, baby face, an Ohm tattoo, backpack and a sign that said “Every Penny Helps”. So I stopped and I asked him if I could join him on the stoop. He obliged and I asked him what I could do for him. He told me that he was hungry so we went to one of the street vendors, got some food and returned to the stoop where I proceeded to ask more questions. “Why was he here?” “Where did he sleep?” “Why the ohm tattoo?” “Why didn’t he just get a job?” And what I discovered, I did not expect. He told me that he wanted a job; that he applied for jobs in the area regularly but that they always wanted a phone number to call him back and that he didn’t have a phone. It had never occurred to me that something like a phone could be the difference between sleeping on the streets and a job.

I left that evening with my mind full of this young man’s situation. And I vowed that if I saw him again I would buy him a phone. As fate would have it, less than 2 weeks later, as I was headed onto US Route 35, on the other of the barricade, on the off ramp, was a young man with piercing blue eyes, a backpack and a sign that said “Every Penny Helps.” So I got off the highway at the next exit, found a pay-as-you-go phone store and for $80 I purchased a basic cell phone, a sim card and minutes. I went back to the on ramp, pulled over my car, turned on my flashers and ran over to him. I handed him the phone, gave him a hug and drove away. The very next day I moved to a lake house for the winter an hour and a half away from the city. And I never saw him again.

Until last Saturday.

The day was a beautiful 70 something degrees and I was volunteering at a community event in Dayton, Ohio called The Longest Table that would bring together over 500 people from all walks of life and more than 50 zipcodes. I arrived around 2PM and signed in at the volunteer table as a table host. This Longest Table event featured a dinner table with more than 500 chairs spanning the Dayton Peace Bridge over the Great Miami River. Each section of the table held space for 6 people: a table host (me) and 5 other people strategically from different parts of the city to facilitate diversity, discussion, learning, community building and solution finding. After volunteer orientation, I went to the bridge to find Table Section 43 before the Opening Ceremony.

And that is when I saw him. Under the Peace Bridge sign was a young man with a piercing blue eyes, a backpack, an Ohm tattoo and a flower behind his ear. Standing silently watching the crowd. And so I went over to him. I said: “I don’t know if you remember me but last year about this time I..” and he interrupted me and said “You stopped on the ramp and gave me a phone.”  And so, I asked him how he was, where he was living, what he was doing. And he told me that he had a job at McDonalds, an apartment of his own and that he was doing well. And I hugged him. And I got tears in my eyes. And I asked him to stay and share food with the group. He pointed to the Peace Bridge sign and said he would stand for awhile.

At the opening ceremony, one of my closest friends approached me yelling: “Of course you know him! Of course you know him!” because as it turned out, he was standing beneath the Peace Bridge sign because on her way to the event she had stopped to greet a young man with piercing blue eyes, a backpack, an Ohm tattoo and a sign that said “Every Penny Helps” and invited him to this Longest Table event. And he had come. He was here because my friend invited him. And I got tears in my eyes as I hugged her.

After the Opening Ceremony the 500 plus people found their assigned seats. Every chair was taken and more were added. Except for Table Section 43. One chair remained empty when David found me to say goodbye. And my section of the table invited him to stay. As we went around the table introducing ourselves, sharing what part of the city we were from and why we were here, David said he was here because god wanted him to be. And the 83 year old woman to my left smiled a big smile and responded with an “Amen”.  And for the next 3 hours the 6 of us talked and listened and created a brighter future. And David shared with a perspective of our city unique to the streets.

I don’t know what impact this young man with piercing blue eyes, an Ohm tattoo, a flower in his hair and a backpack had on the group members at Table Section 43. But I have no doubt that his presence was far more impactful than an empty chair would have been. And that is how we transform our world. By showing up. By asking questions. By listening and sharing. By discovering one another. By eating a meal together, whether at a table on a bridge or on a corner stoop. By asking the question “What can I do for you?” and meaning it.

When $80 can change a life, when a meal can transform a city, when a hug brings tears to someone’s eyes, when your standing beneath a Peace Sign invites discussion, when “Every Penny Helps”, what are we waiting for?

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