By John Latta
As people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina find shelter north, east and west of the Gulf Coast, they will come into contact with thousands of people who help in small ways. People who give money or go to the supermarket and buy the goods needed at shelters, who open their home to a family or open their business so they can give free hair cuts or dry-clean clothes. Kids who donate their allowance, a school class that volunteers to raise money and somebody, somewhere, who sends their social security check to where it can help.
Somewhere out there is a driver just like you who found a way to help. Look around you in a truckstop and you won’t see people wearing badges saying they helped, but somewhere there at the counter, a table in the corner or waiting at the fuel island will be a solo or a team that heard and saw what happened and began to wonder if they could do a little something. Surely there’s something we can spare, something we can do, something we can send. They do it and roll on, their acts of kindness part of a life where a helping hand is a natural thing to do, part of who they are.
These helping people remind me of my late father. In his later years, and after he died, people would tell me about kind things he’d done for them and how grateful they were.
He did small things that mostly took time and a little extra effort. Visiting people who were nearly always alone and who looked forward to nothing but an hour or two of good company. Volunteering to coach some little kids who would never have gotten to play football if he hadn’t assembled them into a ragtag team for an hour or two of fundamentals. Making sure over the years that people he knew who were widowed or had left their homes to dwell in assisted living had the things they needed. A bag of fresh-picked peaches, a book, a ride to go shopping, bringing some old friends with him when he visited, taking someone to a football game they would never get to without help.
Dad had one particular old friend called Leo. I remember as a kid finding that fascination kids have with old men who seem to be mysterious and grand, even though I’m sure he wasn’t. As Leo aged, my father was the only one of his friends who stayed in contact and gave him rides and listened to him tell stories, some of which he’d heard a thousand times.
In their last years my parents went to live in a retirement village called Northbridge. My father had for years been a leader on various volunteer committees that founded the site, worked on plans and financing and then began a long building period as the first units went up and the place expanded. He simply gave them his time.
No residential living will compare to homes people have built and loved and made into their own place. But what I loved about this place was the humanity of it. There was surprisingly little tension. It was a community. People owned their apartments and took pride in them, the grounds were wonderfully landscaped, and people had their own gardens if they wished. Or they could dine together and hang out together. It was a village and very much a thriving place.
It occurred to me, and I still believe it, that Northbridge was an enjoyable, robust place to live – with almost none of the pettiness and nastiness that can beset such large-scale residential living – because it had been created by people trying to build a place for people to live their lives in full. It was not built by a bank, a realty company or a developer, where despite the best of intentions, the bottom line was return on investment.
The investment was time and effort made by people like my father, and the return on it was not in dollars but in the quality of lives. By the way, the place is still thriving today. It seems places like that attract good people.