Uplifting deed means more in down economy

March 15, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

Her name is Jennifer and she's one of those many barely middle-class Americans - social workers, counselors, advocates - who work with people who have nothing. She works with Baltimore children in foster care, children born at the bottom, boys and girls who know poverty, abandonment and abuse before they know anything else.

Jennifer asked me not to use her full name because she's not supposed to speak publicly about her cases. Plus, her husband won't be happy when he finds out she used their credit card again. So I didn't push it. Besides, Jennifer's purpose was not to tell about herself, but about two others: the girl she tried to help in Lutherville the other day, and the stranger who performed a random act of kindness.

What we end up with is a little perspective for those who are worried - or regretful - that recession has brought America's consumer spending binge to a grinding halt and might be forcing us to live on less and with less for years to come. Some people, it is useful to remember, have been stuck there all along, and many are just kids.

One day last week, Jennifer drove to the Goodwill store on Padonia Road. A teenage girl she worked with needed clothes. Jennifer wanted to buy her some, though that's considered crossing a boundary in the social services profession.

"Imagine being a teenage girl and never getting cool clothing," Jennifer told me. "And my Goodwill has some really good stuff, cool brands, hardly worn at all."

Hardly worn at all, leftovers from America's long, long shopping binge.

"Also," Jennifer says, "I was using my credit card so as to hide my deed from my husband, for at least a month. ... Anyhow, there was so much good stuff for this girl. She is 17, no family in sight, scrapping away in a group home for teen mothers, hanging in there, against all odds, so she can get her GED and maybe have some kind of hope.

"So my cart was getting full, and I was getting sweaty, adding it up in my head. It came to $100. I'm thinking, 'Jenny, you impulsive dunderhead. You have three kids of your own, and your job just got cut to part-time, and the interest on this credit card is 16 percent! What are you thinking?"

She was thinking about the kids she works with.

"When I first started this job, two years ago, there were times when I'd read a 'shelter petition,' the allegations of abuse or neglect filed by the Department of Social Services, and lay my head on the desk and just cry," she says. "And it wasn't always the most obvious ones that shook me up, not always the most heinous abuses that made me cry. Sometimes it was just the meanness, or the abandonment, and the knowledge that some things cannot ever be OK for people, not ever again. Most times I can do my job and be fine. But every so often some kid tugs at my heart and I can't be objective."

So she went shopping for the girl at the Goodwill in Lutherville. She pushed her cart to the checkout line and started removing hangers from the pile of clothing she probably shouldn't have been buying.

Suddenly an elderly woman Jennifer had never seen before approached.

"I'd like to give this lady my 10-percent-off card," she told the cashier. "Can I do that? Because the offer runs out soon anyway, so she should have it."

In the midst of this recession, with everyone hunkered down and a lot more money-conscious, someone still noticed a need and an opportunity to help another, and a stranger at that.

"I told the lady that these clothes were for a kid in foster care, and thank you, you just did a double good deed," Jennifer says. "All the people in line, and the cashiers, everyone, felt really good about that. And I got 10 percent off, which somewhat alleviates the egregious interest!"

It is, as Jennifer puts it, "a mini-tale to make us feel mini-good," but it somehow means more today than it did just a year ago. So does 10 percent off.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays on this page and Tuesdays in the news pages. He is host of the midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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