Tuesday August 20, 2013

I am ashamed to admit it, but I have not always been entirely egalitarian when doling out a "Hi" or "Hello" to a stranger on the street. I tend to smile and engage with folks I deem to be somewhat like myself or those I think have an "open" face. I'm inclined to get that detached, instantaneous "faraway look" when I approach someone I find intimidating. I may be put off by a stranger's dirty clothes, unkempt hair or pronounced scowl. I sometimes make a quick judgment about income or mental health. Whatever the tiny red flag, I immediately put distance between myself and the stranger. I noticed this pattern on my early morning runs this spring. And it bothered me.

When you run at dawn, there are not many legitimate reasons for not smiling at someone you pass. There are no throngs on the street to wade through; no traffic to demand your attention. Your approach is announced by your rhythmic footfalls and robust intakes of breath. The stranger glances up to satisfy curiosity and to potentially engage; you instantly make your choice. Is this person in need of (or -- alternatively -- worthy of) a kind greeting? I used to make this calculation all the time, and then loathed my arbitrary and cruel reckoning. I changed my strategy this April as buds emerged on tender shoots. Like the tiny acts of renewal all around me, I sought a new spring within myself.


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I now greet everyone in much the same way I welcome the day -- with an underlying trust in the goodness that lies at the heart of civility.

The dawn beckons dog walkers, runners, bikers and elderly folks out for a morning constitutional. It also calls forth those for whom the night is one more trial to be endured. The supple, tender light at the horizon's rim signals a respite from the murky chill; it invites us into optimism and anticipation. One dusky morning I noticed weary men emerge from alley ways and alcoves in town. Some clutched plastic bags stuffed with necessities, other shuffled along with walking sticks. They nodded greetings and called to each other across Main Street -- this clan of street-smart, grizzled men.

I initially felt fear. Having been mugged before, I am not so naïve to believe in my invincibility. And although I was referred to as "Mighty Mite" by college friends, I am still only 98 pounds soaking wet; I know my physical limitations. Next I felt concern: Who are these unfortunate souls who hunker down in Brattleboro's recesses each night? But tucked into my empathy and worry was something I was not eager to admit: I placed these men in a separate category in my mind. They were people to be pitied not connected to.

Day after day I passed these men. The more I looked into their faces and smiled, the more human they became to me. My smiles turned into "hellos," my hellos evolved into more effusive salutations. Eventually I stopped to exchange names with one man who always greeted me at the corner of High and Main. I wish I could claim my own progressive, evolved values were responsible for my change. But really, it was memory.

As the sun sidled over the crown of Mt. Wantastiquet one morning, I recalled the story of Philadelphian Anne Mahlum's daybreak runs in 2007. She'd jog past the same group of homeless men in front of the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission and wave hello. After weeks of this, she decided to invite these strangers to run with her. That first run included nine homeless men, ages 28 to 57. Now her nonprofit, Back on My Feet, has chapters in 10 American cities.

Through group running, program support, and personal goal setting, her organization helps homeless men and women get their lives back on track. After 30 days of sobriety and another 30 days of running with a team, each member gains access to financial and housing assistance, employment guidance, and training. As fitness and health improve, so does a member's self-perception. Almost 80 percent of program members report that they are certain they will get a job they like, and 94 percent are now hopeful about their future. Almost a thousand members now have gainful employment and hundreds are in their own apartments.

But when Mahlum first pitched her idea people told her: "These guys aren't going to want to run. They have other things to worry about." Mahlum recalls, "They weren't thought to be deserving of the luxury when they have so much else going on." But Mahlum, an admitted addictive personality herself, knew her unlikely running mates should not be judged only by appearance, hardships and addictions, but by the full measure of the man.

Anne Mahlum never intended to start a nonprofit. You could say her great idea started with a hello. But, truly, it began with her critical decision to see people beyond their trappings and cherish not just their basic humanity but their immense potential.

How many opportunities do we miss? How many grand ideas never come to fruition because we simply look past the grizzled men as they shuffle by?

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.