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A Love List: One Man's Solution for Negative News

--Audrey Lin, on Mar 15, 2013

On last Saturday's Forest Call, we got to hear stories of giving from a man who didn't always like to help.

What started in college as a chore to log volunteer hours quickly turned into a pleasant surprise, as Christopher found himself struck by the overwhelming joy he felt in channeling his time, talents, and energy into a project that served a community in need.

Since then, he’s spent the greater part of his adult life (these days, logging anywhere from 30-50 hours a week, on top of his regular full-time job) finding people and projects towards whom to give, serve, and love. Often he does this anonymously, and with no expectation of anything in return.

And his journey in giving has brought a wealth of insights and color into his life. At one point, his bank account and net worth emptied down to $4.23. Another time, he went to chop wood for an elderly couple who couldn't do it themselves. A neighbor watched him and later on took the responsibility on himself to cut wood for his elderly neighbors.

LoveList: The Beginnings

As a single father of three with a full-time job, it wasn’t always easy to find volunteer opportunities that fit his time, schedule, and work-life balance.

One day, while jogging with his then 15-year-old daughter, a movie, Pay-It-Forward, about the ripple effect of small acts of kindness, danced into their conversation. She had never seen it, so they went home and watched it together.

During the film, he commented, “This encapsulates a lot of the things I’m looking for in volunteering… I wish I could find something like this.”

His teenager daughter just looked at him and said, “Well, you’ve started other businesses before. Why don’t you just do it?”

After an initial round of the standard excuses (no time, not enough experience, etc.), Christopher noticed, “I was feeding her a bunch of excuses. As soon as I realized that, I stopped mid-sentence and told her, ‘The truth is I don’t know. These are a bunch of excuses, and I just haven’t done it. It just seemed overwhelming so I never took it seriously.’

Before the movie finished, he started researching how to create an organization, and so began an anonymous group of friends (including his own kids) and colleagues that find people in need and ways to serve them.

Amplifying Altruism

There’s always that elevated feel-good high that arises from seeing someone receive what they need, and knowing you contributed to that, but that goodness is only part of the motivation for Christopher. What really drives these efforts home—what really keeps him committed for hours on end to this stuff—is the potential for one small, altruistic act to re-inspire a sense of faith and possibility in another’s life. The potential to recover a lightness of spirit that can get lost over the course of a person’s challenging life experiences.

For example, one of their first projects was relieving the debt of a single mother. A mother of three children, and whose husband had emptied their bank account before leaving them for good, this woman was strikingly resilient. She had found full-time work, steady housing, and her children were in good health and spirits. But despite all these helpful turn of events, she had a looming backlog of debt. The stress of which kept her eyebrows in a constant wrinkled-worried furrow, shoulders heavy and chest tight with anxiety.

This is one of the few cases where Christopher actually met a recipient of his work. (Most of the time, they remain anonymous.) He and other Lovelist volunteers had raised enough money to cover the costs of all her debt, and completely paid it off. When they went to meet with the woman to tell her, Christopher recalls, “She was worried that maybe we weren’t there for what we said we were—maybe it was to take her kids, or something.”

Her spirit had run dry, and her heart was encased in the rough numb of distrust. Yet after telling her that her debt was gone—that a group of strangers just wanted to do something kind and raised enough funds to pay it all off—“You could see the emotions wash over and over on her face.”

In that reaction, Christopher evenly points out, “That’s sometimes a response, and it always feels great to see that, but the real point to me—what I was really seeing—was the effect that we had had on her life. That it was going to restore some faith or hope that she had lost previously. “And that, in turn, would make her more willing to help others. It just naturally works that way.”

Be Selfish, Be Generous

After sharing this story, Christopher admits, “To be honest with you, I got a lot more out of it than she did, than maybe even her children did… It’s a very selfish thing, but it’s true. The more I do it, the more I’m fulfilled and happy.”

Then his tone lowers a bit, and he elaborates:

I have a lot of PTSD [Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder] type of things from law enforcement stuff and a few things that happened in life. And, from witnessing this stuff, nothing makes a dent against PTSD or depression issues, or you name it, better than giving. Nothing alleviates that level of negativity in the world better than doing these types of things for other people.

I think the residual effects from that level of positivity in your life, even without any interaction back—if you never meet the people that you help—just the ability to know the effect you have on their life. And it may not even be one person. Maybe out of five. Maybe out of ten. You know, you just start to develop it, and it kind of combats the normal evening negative news …

I’ve never found anything that really combats that kind of negativity and view of the world better than service to others.”

Ripple Effect of A Mother’s Small Acts

When asked about people or influences that inspire him, Christopher immediately shares stories about his mom, who had raised him mostly on her own:

“She only wanted me to have fun and the best things for me. When we didn’t have enough money for Christmas presents, I remember the memories of being down the hall and being at the driveway late at night after she got off work and school, where she was using band saws and things. It was to create me this little wooden elephant puzzle, and to sew me a robe, and a little stuffed rabbit and bear, with a baby bear and momma bear who had snaps on their noses to kiss together. She made all these things for me for Christmas and for my birthdays because we didn’t have money. It’s those things, the level of her sacrifice. And not just to me—to everyone in our neighborhood.”

Beyond the mother-son relationship, Christopher shared in awe at the way his mother instantly welcomed their whole neighborhood into their home one winter to use their wood burning stove when the power had gone out across the city.

“We just cranked that stove and had it going twenty-four hours a day. People made meals on it in shifts. And we had the whole neighborhood basically living in our house until we got power. People would run back over to their houses to get food to cook for everybody.”

Soon after the tales of his mother, he shared a story of his own birthday gift for his son, who recently turned ten. It was beautiful to witness the ripple effect of kindness within his own family—how the small acts he received from his mother in many ways overflowed his own cup to water the small acts he now plants in the hearts of many strangers, neighbors, friends, and family.

“For [my son’s] birthday, I gave him 100 dollars but he only gets to keep fifty. And he has to apply half of that towards college, and with the other half, he can do whatever he wants (he can buy toys, etc). But the other fifty dollars, he has to give it away…”

With sparks of excitement shimmering in his voice, he described how he and his son will go to a nearby park the next weekend and give his birthday gift to strangers:

“He gets to pick whatever increments he wants to give it out. And he gets to pick anybody he wants to give it to. He has to give away as much money as he gets to keep for himself. And I’m trying to prioritize for him at this age, education and giving.”

A Positive Epidemic

At the end of the conversation, he shared that though Lovelist is a formal organization, nobody needs an organization to do this. He simply started it to make it easier for people to get involved—to offer a structured format for the interactions. But, in essence, “All it takes is going and finding people to help that you normally would not. That’s really the point. That’s the thing that changes our behavior and impacts others so strongly…to really get that altruism feeling, that gratitude feeling, as opposed to indebtedness.”

In a way, he and his team work on the subtle rather than distinct levels of society.

“Our motive isn’t to end homelessness. It’s not to end the lack of education. If we can affect those things also, that’s awesome, but that’s just a perk. Our real goal is to make a positive epidemic of people helping each other.”

With no overhead, and lots of heart, it’s humbling to think that a quiet group of ordinary men and women are lighting up lives across Portland, Oregon, one anonymous act at a time.