Years ago I was in Sacramento, the capital of California, to speak at the Governor’s homeless summit, when my mother called me. She said someone from my past had tracked her down and was looking for me.
It sounded ominous, but my curiosity urged me to call. I had known “Tran” 15 years earlier when he was in high school in my hometown.
Back then, I was in college and had an idea.
I organized a tutoring program for Southeast Asian refugee youth who could not turn to their non-English-speaking parents for help with their homework. I convinced a dozen of my friends to be tutors. We became mentors to these youth who had been unfairly displaced and now found themselves in a strange country.
Tran was one of those youth. We taught him and his peers English, helped them with homework, gave them swimming lessons, and went with them to Lakers games.
After graduating from college, my friends and I went on with our lives. So did the youth we helped. We had responded to a need, and then moved on.
Fast forward 15 years. Tran heard I was in Sacramento and wanted to get together. When I arrived at his large suburban home, I walked into a room full of people who were eager to meet me.
Meet me? It was overwhelming. People came up one by one to shake my hand or give me a hug, and Tran explained their enthusiasm to me:
“Joel, I have been telling my family—my parents, my kids, my cousins, everyone—that I would never have been successful if it wasn’t for you helping me when I was a kid.”
Tran owns two homes, runs a successful retail business, and created a Southeast Asian Association to help others. He funded his cousins’ educations, and educates his children about the importance of giving back.
I was floored. I hadn’t heard from him for 15 years and, frankly, just thought of my college idea as a simple way to help kids who needed it. It had never seemed like something particularly cutting edge or unique to me.
And yet, that one act of kindness changed Tran’s world, his family’s world, and his community.
The power of kindness is awe-inspiring.
When I returned home from Sacramento, I shared my experience with my staff at PATH.
“You never know when what you say or do might dramatically change someone’s life,” I said. Every year, our agencies help 1,500 adults and families who used to live on the streets move into permanent housing. Talk about dramatically changing lives!
A few years ago, I hosted a large community party in my loft, and had a simple poster for PATH. There were more than 200 guests eating, drinking, and enjoying the fellowship of their community.
In the middle of the party, a guy came up to me who was there with a well-to-do neighbor. He had tears in his eyes. Fervently, I hoped there wasn’t something wrong with the food.
While trying to control his emotions, he said, “Joel, I came to this party to have fun, but I didn’t realize that you run PATH. Years ago, I lived in your Hollywood shelter program. PATH saved my life. I think I would have died if it wasn’t for your kindness.”
Once again, the incredible power of kindness.
These personal encounters always remind me of how the simplest seeds of kindness can dramatically change a person’s world. A community’s world. Your world.
Got a new idea of how to help people in need? Pursue it. That act of kindness just might change someone’s life.