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Investing in Hope, at $50 a Share

An anonymous donor asks Indiana church members to do good with envelopes of cash. The experience changes the takers and the givers.

July 22, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — The money in the white envelopes bought one cancer patient a beautiful ham. It bought nine disabled children an afternoon of golf and giggles.

True, some money may have been squandered on an addict's high. But it did buy an exhausted mother a massage.

In $50 increments, the money in the white envelopes spread hope. And it left some folks thinking they could make a difference in the world.

It started one Sunday when Linda McCoy, pastor of a free-spirited church here called The Garden, preached about kindness--or as she put it, sowing seeds of love. Then she held up 50 envelopes. An anonymous donor had filled each with a $50 bill.

Anyone could take one, no strings attached. All the donor asked was that the money be used for good.

"We can make this world a better place," McCoy told her congregation. "What a wonderful adventure."

Many who picked up the envelopes spent weeks pondering how best to spend the $50. Some wrote checks to established charities. But others were stirred to reach out directly to the needy. Teachers and plumbers, therapists and nurses found themselves driving the streets of Indianapolis, studying the worn faces they passed, looking for a need they could meet.

"I wanted to make a difference in someone's life," said Loretta Johnson, an insurance underwriter.

As it turned out, the envelopes made as much difference to the givers as to the takers. The middle-age, middle-class members of the congregation found themselves listening to strangers' hard-luck stories with empathy this time instead of skepticism. The donor had trusted them to use the money wisely. They took that trust and passed it on.

"The older I get, the more cynical I've gotten. I see what goes on in the world, and I'm disgusted. But this project helped me see there's still hope," said Carol Meeks, a home economist who used the money to grow a huge garden that will provide fresh produce for the hungry.

"Sometimes, we're too focused on what's wrong with other people. This project encouraged you to see the good in them," added Mary Jane Mesmer, a business consultant. She gave the money to an Amish family that a friend had met by chance in a hospital coffee shop. The family, from rural Indiana, had come to the city for their son's kidney transplant and seemed bewildered and afraid. Mesmer thought they could use a stranger's kindness.

Over and over throughout the project, such kindness proved contagious.

Many participants easily tripled or quadrupled the $50 as friends, touched by the donor's generosity, opened their own wallets. Dee Caldwell, a real estate agent, raised $325 to take 40 low-income kids to play with the baby animals on her farm. Nurse Patty Fredenburgh raised so much money for her Special Olympics golf tournament that she's buying the children team T-shirts.

The phenomenon of one good turn sparking another is rooted in our psychology.

When we see someone do a good deed--such as an anonymous donor filling 50 envelopes with cash--it elevates our view of human nature. That elevation can produce physical changes: The proverbial lump in the throat or tightness in the chest. It also triggers altruism. Once elevated, people often feel inspired to do their own good deeds, according to Jon Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who has spent years studying this reaction.

Haidt calls The Garden's project a "brilliant" way to leverage elevation by creating an ever-expanding chain of goodwill.

"This is one of the most effective uses of $2,500 that I've ever heard," he said.

Not that elevation is always instant. Donna Hoffman, for instance, thought seriously about keeping the $50. A single mom who drives a school bus, cleans houses and is writing an inspirational novel about angels, Hoffman figured she deserved the cash.

She kept the envelope for several weeks. It didn't feel right.

"I kept thinking, 'You know what? I'm rich,' " Hoffman said. "I'm rich in my heart because I have an opportunity to do something with this money." She gave it to a friend, Pam Burleson, who cares for a brain-damaged son.

"I was really, really touched," Burleson said. So was Hoffman, who proudly reports that "the world now feels a little smaller, a little less frightening."

Other members of the congregation also struggled with the $50--not because they were tempted to pocket the money, but because it was hard for them to get past the mind-set that philanthropy meant writing a check to a tax-exempt nonprofit group.

After consulting with their two sons, Nancy and Peter Howe gave the $50 (and a sizable contribution of their own) to a single mother whose only child is battling leukemia--and who has difficulty finding the cash to buy gas for her daily trips to visit him in the hospital.

"I still think writing a check to the American Cancer Society is a wonderful thing, but this ... had so much more meaning," said Nancy Howe, a mental-health counselor. "We want to do more of it."

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