Small Change: A Man Named 'Hugh'

Posted by Nipun Mehta on Jan 26, 2008
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Two days ago, I got an email titled "Voice from the past".  Someone I had met years ago, at a CharityFocus orientation meeting and someone who has been following my personal and CharityFocus evolutions.  Hugh -- who has lived in many random countries, had senior positions in several companies, had attended talks with people like J. Krishnamurti and David Bohm along the way -- turns out to be an interesting guy.  We shared a Bart ride together, and then the Wednesday night (complete with stuffing several hundred smile card orders :)).

Hugh and his wife (both in their 70s) spend two hours a day walking, to get their daily bit of exercise.  Along the way, they keep their eyes open for spare change, mostly pennies, that people have dropped and they pick it up and collect it.  When the coin-bags in their home become heavy (25 lbs), they carry it and walk to a local food shelter and donate it anonymously; to this day, the shelter don't know their name.  They've been doing this for the last 9 years and have probably donated about $2500 bucks this way. 

That's a great story, but intriguing part is what Hugh has become by this process.  Along the way, homeless people have offered him money, he has returned wallets and traveler's check worth $500, has befriended the most unassuming folks from substance abusers to shopkeepers.  "Rather unexpectedly, it builds community," he said.  People would offer him change, and a dollar and he would tell them that he only accepts what's found on the streets.  (So, in some cases, they drop it on the ground so he picks it up :)).  He talks about the "begging bowl" feeling of humility when he reaches into the gutter to pick up a penny; when we ask him, "So, you know that you can make more in an hour than you would during an entire year of picking up coins.  How do you process that?"  One would think that Hugh has processed that, considering that he's been with several for-profit organizations in the past.  He smilingly responds, "No, actually, I never think about that." :)

Hugh's stories, spoken in his soft-spoken, unassuming manner while we rode the noisy Bart, were nothing short of riveting.  He's thinking that perhaps if others went out for walks, and kept their eyes open for spare change, we could create great social benefit from this modest effort.

After I spoke about his journey in the Wednesday opening yesterday and when the mic came to him, Viral casually asked his name in the circle ... and he instinctively said, "Hugh."  That's his middle name, and he didn't want to blow his anonymity (although one senses that he's not stuck to it either).

We barely spoke about CharityFocus, but this morning I got this note from him:

Thanks for inviting me to the "Wednesday Meeting." I could see the gathering was something special for all of us who were there.

This morning I read the draft of "Tao of Charity Focus" document. The organization you and your community have developed is a model that I fully subscribe to and have tried to encourage in organizations as an organizational change consultant. It is a model that allows, encourages, and supports the flowering of the creativity that I think is in all of us. After all, what is an organization if not the complete network of relationships and activities of the people in it? It also inspires and nurtures the ideas and passion that are the substance and energy that keeps an organization going and growing.

Last night I shared my experience of the Wednesday Meeting with Connie, my wife. We now question whether it makes sense to create yet another, independent organization to expand our modest coin spotting program. We wonder if it wouldn't be better to assist in the creation of another node in the Indra's Net of Charity Focus. We already have a third member of our posse- Rahul. Actually he would be the fourth member, because our 15 year old niece in Salt Lake City is also picking up coins. She spent a few days with us two Summers ago and was introduced to our "Small Change" efforts. She thought what we were doing was "soooo cool and
awesome" that she wanted to stay on with us and devote her life to picking up coins. However, she relented to our encouragement to return home and start her own program, which she did. She has collected a fair amount of money and donated it to a dog rescue program in her community.

Although several names for our expanded program have been suggested (e.g., The Pickup Team, Street People's Collective, Spot, Stoop, Scoop, and Send (Give?), World Coin Recyclers, Giving Community, Coin Search, Pick It, Pick Yourself Up, Coin Aid, and Small Change), I think Small Change is the best choice so far. That name expresses both a core value of CF and is a good metaphor for the product of what we do.

If you or any of your associates are interested in the above idea, I would like to get together and brain storm how we can get it going.

The whole do-nothing model of CharityFocus continues to work its wonders!   I've spoken to "Hugh" to see if he's up an interview with works & conversations (Richard is probably the only guy who will be able to capture the subtlety of these stories, as he did in A Man Impossible to Classify).  We'll see where this journey with Hugh leads.  Needless to say, he's a member of the Tiger Team. :)

In a related note, here's a brilliant video by Adam's friend on the NY subway:

Small change. Within and without.

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Comments (1)

  • Avon Mattison wrote ...

    An inspiring story that invites everyone to make a difference in a small yet significant way. The name "Small Change" keeps the heart and simplicity of the true story.