The Power of One

A number of years ago, a chubby teenage girl from rural North Carolina piled into a van with some friends and headed to the great city of New Orleans. It was summer, hot and humid, even for those of us used to it. We were armed with craft supplies, loads energy and great ideas – we were going to lead day camps for kids. You see, we figured we had a lot to teach them.

My classroom was a tiny room inside of a church in urban New Orleans. There was no air conditioning and hardly any room to move. The kids were so excited to be there – particularly for the snacks. We found out later that many of them did not eat during the day in summer because they were on their own, some as young as five years old. When school was out, there was nothing to do, and their parents still had to work. We were their source of entertainment.

There were two dirty faced boys in my classroom. Both were clearly too old for the third grade but they wanted to stay. Adam and Pazzy. My problem kids. They were so wild and loud and had very little respect for authority. Standing at about 5 feet tall, this was quite the problem.

On about the third day, Pazzy didn’t show. And Adam was in a mood. So, I took him out into the hall. I started to read him the riot act and he did a surprising thing: he cried. Instinctively, I started to rub his back to calm him down. He flinched. I pulled his shirt up and saw these horrible red marks across his back. He saw me staring, pulled his shirt back down, rubbed his eyes dry and told me that he had fallen while trying to climb a gate. Only we both knew the truth.

That day, I really saw Adam. He was so skinny. His shoes didn’t remotely fit his feet. He was dirty.

I went back to my room that night and cried. I had seen poor people before, I went to school with them and on paper, I was probably one of them. But not poor like that. As much as I whined to my mom about not being able to afford Nike shoes and designer jeans, I went to school every morning clean and dressed properly – with breakfast in my belly and a good lunch in my lunch box. My mom was waiting for me when I got home from school and on days off, there was always someone there to take care of me.

It was, I decided, not fair. And I resolved to do what I could – well, as much as a 14 year old girl could. I convinced my friends to pony up their souvenir money and we bought Adam a new pair of shoes. And for the rest of my stay in New Orleans, I gave Adam extra attention every day. We practiced reading – he was in the third grade and couldn’t read a proper sentence. I made sure that he had enough to eat. But mostly, I just hung out with him.

I was so scared to go back to North Carolina. I worried for him. When I was gone, who would take care of him? I gave him a stack of pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes as a goodbye present. For the first couple of months, he would send me drawings and an occasional note about how he was doing. And then the letters stopped. I felt defeated.

But then something remarkable happened. In spring, I got a tattered envelope in the mail, addressed just to “Kelly” with my address. Inside were plastic Mardi Gras beads and a note. The note said:

Dear Kelly,

I passed third grade this year. Thank you. You are the only person who was nice to me.


P.S. Here are some Mardi Gars beads.

Twenty something years later, that memory is still fresh for me. I was just a little girl – and I did something big. And it didn’t take a lot of money or any extraordinary talent. It just took taking a moment to really see what was going on around me.

So, um, why am I telling you this story? Today is Blog Action Day. The theme is poverty. You’ll probably see a lot of calls around the blogosphere for action. I hope that you’ll take them to heart. There are lots of things that you can do:

Consider making a financial donation today to a charity that offers real solutions to ending poverty… Two of my favorites are Accion International and Children’s Literacy Iniative.

Or maybe: donate books to your local library; take your gently worn clothes to a local shelter; or buy a new toy for a child for Christmas. (And yes, whether it’s cash or goods that you’re donating to a tax-exempt charitable organization, it’s tax deductible!)

Finally, take a moment or two to look around you and see what you can do in your own neighborhood. Maybe it’s taking dinners to homeless who live around you (my friends and I did this in law school at Thanksgiving, it was loads of fun), volunteering to read to children at your local school, knitting a cap and scarf for children’s local shelter… or maybe just acknowledging the presence of those who are struggling around you, especially now when so many families are having such a difficult time. It is those ordinary things that make an extraordinary difference.


Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

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19 thoughts on “The Power of One

  1. Thank you for sharing that story. Amazing. And it really does show the power that one person can have for good. And it doesn’t always mean that you have to donate huge amounts of money (although every little bit helps).

  2. Thanks for sharing this Kelly – it’s so important to recognize that poverty touches all of us. And the personal element that you added makes it all the more touching.

  3. I was listening yesterday to a podcast of This American Life where the subject was “Going Big”. The first vignette was about a man named Geoffrey Canada, who decided after joining an organization that helps poor black children in Harlem that the organization needed to ramp up its vision and reach. It was an amazing and inspiring story.

    More than 20 years later, the Harlem Children’s Zone has raised more than $100 million to fund schools and programs for children and parents, including Baby College and Promise Academy. Parents learn the tools to help their children rise up and break the cycle of poverty, and it’s working: more than 95% of 3rd graders in the program tested at or above grade level in math, and the graduation rate of students who come through the program is 95% (compared to the almost 50% of teens in the city who don’t complete high school on time).

  4. That was a great thing you did for that kid. I had a CCD (“Sunday School”) teacher like that when I was in the 5th grade and spiraling; everyone hated me, teachers, other kids, parents, I was violent and angry and wired. Couldn’t sit still, couldn’t shut up, couldn’t keep from punching people if they pissed me off or tried to touch me, including adults and other kids. All this guy did was tell me he saw through my crap and knew I was a good person, not the tough guy I acted like, and I bawled like a baby because noone in my whole life had ever told me I was a decent person till then. This guy was only there for a few months and they replaced him with some mean old nun, but that offhand kindness really made a difference. And I never tried to piss him off again. I wish I knew his name and could thank him directly, Jack Brotz is what I vaguely recollect, but at any rate, I always tell people who get frustrated dealing with emotionally disturbed kids, that you might not get feedback at the time, but the tiniest things can mean a whole lot to people who have nothing, people that noone’s ever been nice to. Charity comes in all forms, and simple kindness is pretty powerful. I give everything I can afford to help the homeless and mentally ill, both time and money. Mental illness and homelessness are closely correlated and I can really empathize with the latter, and used to really fear the former, back when I was seriously nuts. Next time you’re downtown smile at a homeless person. I’ve always gotten a big smile back.

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