Dubai-based Shimi Shah was waiting in line at a supermarket check-out when she saw a construction worker – in his overalls – in front of her fumbling with a handful of coins and some notes to pay for the items in his basket. It was obvious he didn’t have enough money for the few things he’d chosen – a packet of crisps, apples, milk and a few packs of fruit juice. He was on the verge of putting some back, staring at the crisps that would surely have to go. Instinctively, she moved forward, telling him to keep them. “I paid for his groceries almost like a reflex action,’’ says Shimi, director of Carousel Solutions, a business consultancy firm.
The reason? She is a big fan of the Pay It Forward movement that took off from Catherine Ryan Hyde’s best-seller of the same name, which also spawned the Hollywood hit starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. Shimi was so taken with the concept of doing little acts of kindness which may inspire the recipients to pass on the acts to others, that she’s hoping to spread the movement here in the UAE. The look of surprise on the man’s face turned to delight as he tried to thank Shimi. “It cost me less than Dh100, but more than the money, it was lovely to see the effect my act had on him,” she says.
“It gave me tremendous satisfaction that I was doing something directly for a person rather than giving to a charity where a chunk of it would likely go towards costs for paying incidental expenditures of the organisation.” Shimi explained to the man why she’d paid for his shopping, and what she hoped would come out of it. “I told him I didn’t expect him to do the same, but that if he could help anybody in any way, that would be enough,” she says. “He was immensely relieved and grateful, and promised me he’d pass on the act of kindness. I am sure he has already.”
A simple way to make someone happy
In faraway Pennsylvania, US, Mark Detterline, a student of Lehigh University, recalls an experience that changed his life forever. “A man, who seemed to have not much more than the clothes on his back and a few items in his backpack, held the door open for me at a fast food outlet, patted me on the back, and told me to have a nice day. I was elated. It was such a simple thing for him to do that made me so happy, and made me want to change the world.’’ Nalini Som, an HR manager for a Dubai-based company, mentions a similar incident.
“I’d gone to the bank one morning and was waiting in line at the teller counter. It was the beginning of the week and there was a huge queue. By the time I reached the counter, I found the teller looking quite hassled and irritable. I was wondering how I could make his day better when I noticed his tie. It was a lovely blue one with little white elephants on it. “‘That’s a beautiful tie you have’, I said. His face broke out into a smile. ‘Is it?’ he asked. ‘Actually I love it too – I picked it up from Thailand.’ He was still glowing even when I left the counter and I’m sure he would pass on a compliment to somebody else.’’
Those who have read the best-seller Pay It Forward or seen the movie will recognise the concept and the common thread running through these three encounters – doing a good deed without being asked – which will create a ripple effect with the recipients doing similar deeds to others. It’s just this kind of incidents that has kept the Pay It Forward movement going since it was launched by Catherine Ryan Hyde in 2001. The present president of the Pay It Forward Foundation, Charley Johnson, who serves as the inspiration for people like Shimi, Nalini and Mark, among thousands of others, hopes more and more people will replicate it. The 32-year-old wants to make the world a better place with what he terms ‘little acts of kindness’.
An American businessman who made his first million in his twenties, Charley sold off his successful business manufacturing promotional products like T-shirts, lanyards and mouse pads last April to pursue the concept of Pay It Forward full-time. Charley doesn’t have any story of dramatic transformation that made him devote his life to the movement. “People ask me if I had an ‘aha!’ moment that got me on board Pay It Forward, and I have to admit there was none,” he says. “It was over time... I am a very big people-watcher. I watch people in the traffic, who speed up, and who cut across, and I realise that in all those cases there is no eye contact. When you step up and look into the other person’s eyes you’ll be obliged to be nice... help out. That’s what everybody needs.”
Even as a child, Charley remembers being always willing to help out. “My parents taught me to step up for the underdog, to always be nice to people,” he says. “While growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, when kids made fun of some kids, I didn’t like it. I felt guilty about another kid being made fun of or being messed around with. I always wondered why people treated each other badly. As I grew up I realised it’s basically insecurity – about your condition, looks, financial position, anything – and we need to get over that.” Then Charley read the book. “I’ve always liked doing things for other people,” he says.
“So, when I read the book I absolutely fell in love with the concept. It was like someone saying what had been on my mind all along. You do a good deed and ask the person to do a good deed to another person. It’s great to see their face light up and tell us their stories of how they helped someone else.” Charley joined the Pay It Forward movement initiated by Catherine as an off-shoot of her book’s popularity, and promoted it enthusiastically. But it didn’t take off as well as he wanted it to. One day while out on the road, he realised why – it needed a symbol to propel it forward.
“I was driving on the US freeway around five years ago when the idea of a bracelet that could be passed on popped into my head,” he says. “I liked the fact that it was tangible and physical, a reminder to people of the goodness they had experienced and the need to do something in return. I also liked the fact that you could remove it and give it to someone as a token. It brought back the human connection, the eye contact that we’ve lost due to technology and the pace of life. It also brought that intimate moment when one human being looks at another and says this is why I did this. This is the only reason why it’s your turn next time.”
Using his own funds, Charley got a batch of bracelets embossed with ‘Pay It Forward’ to remind people what they need to do. In the four years since, 1.5 million have been sent across the world. Now, the bracelets move faster than they can be produced, all paid for by Charley. “The bracelet is so successful because it’s simple,” he says. “Giving is one thing, but when you ask a person to pay it forward you are putting trust in them and empowering them to do the same for another human being.”
Dedicated to the cause
After creating the bracelet, the movement took over Charley’s life. “I decided to sell off my hugely profitable business, which was earning me millions, and invest my money and time in making a small positive changes in the world. Things just changed, I changed, the culture changed. Business wasn’t my passion anymore.” Luckily, Charley’s family also thought it was a good idea. “When I told my wife, Nicole, she just said, ‘That’s great, let’s do it.’” Charley refuses to narrate stories of the many acts of kindness he does on a daily basis. He believes in just doing it and getting on with life.
But Shimi, who’s also on the board of the Pay It Forward Foundation, has seen him help others without a second thought. “He went into this restaurant near where he stays in Texas, had a $20-meal and left a $30 tip for the waiter, who he knew was a college kid funding his studies by working part-time,” she says. “He’s done such kinds of deeds hundreds of times. He’s bought air tickets for elderly couples who don’t have the means to travel to visit their children; groceries for poor people; cups of coffee for strangers who looked like they needed one…”
While Charley refuses to be drawn on his own kindness, he likes the simplicity of the movement because “It’s a thing everyone can be a part of no matter how rich or poor.” Despite the progress the movement’s made over the years, Charley has trouble convincing corporations and companies to adopt it. “A lot of them still don’t take me seriously,” he says. “Unfortunately, simplicity is the toughest thing for the human mind to understand. It’s such a contradiction, but it’s true.”
The good news is that leading Canadian companies such as Talbots, Greenwin, Brand Alliance and Great-West Life, among others, sponsor some of the foundation’s activities such as holding camps in schools, organising educational programmes for children as well as buying and distributing bracelets among staff and clients. Charley funds his own trips to speak at schools as well as distributes bracelets free of cost to anybody who asks for one. “Nothing is taken as payment to subsidise Pay It Forward,” says Shimi. “It’s fully funded by Charley Johnson. My company, Carousel Solutions, and some of the corporations involved do contribute, but all the cash contribution received by Pay It Forward go towards funding the bracelets.”
Charley makes it clear he does not have ownership of the idea. “It’s not just me,” he insists. “Look at what Shimi’s doing (see box above). She’s taken it upon herself to make a huge initiative in Dubai, and that’s just massive. That’s inspiring others to do something. Likewise, there are millions pushing it on their own. When they contact me they have their own ideas of how to do it and we support that.” Charley sees the movement growing over the years. “I don’t think there will be a country that will not want to be a part of it when they understand the potential of the movement. “A lot of people say we can change the world,” he says. “I shy away from that. I just want to make it better.”