We were waiting at a traffic light, where a few trees separate a major street from fields beyond. There was a cold February rain falling, not pouring but relentless.
Cars get through this intersection fairly quickly. But even from a stopped car it’s hard to notice the people living down among the trees. You’ve got to look closely to see the sheets of cardboard or ratty old tents. Those who stay there try to stay out of sight.
As I pulled to a stop, I saw a woman standing at the edge of a wide spot on the road where people often park cars they want to sell. Wearing neon-green stretch pants and a bright yellow jacket, she was alone. Didn’t look lost; just like she had no place else to go. No hat. No umbrella. No shoes.
In that moment, a car pulled into the wide spot; newer model, nice. A youngish woman, probably in early 30s, got out. She stepped close enough to the woman to hand something to her. Then say something. The soaked woman looked down, but not away.
Then the young woman balanced on one foot and took off a shoe. Then she took off the other. In the rain, standing in wet gravel, she handed both shoes to the woman. Then she turned, stepped back into her car and drove off.
The driver behind me honked. I pulled away, but in my rear-view mirror I could see the woman standing there, turning to watch her benefactor’s car disappear up the road in the rain.
She took the shoes off her feet and handed them to a woman standing alone in the rain.
Ten weeks have passed, but the scene remains.
It reminded me of the story columnist Jeff Jardine told last year about Brad Lehman. At work one day, Lehman saw a homeless guy walking barefoot in the rain. That night, he dug four pair of shoes out of his closet and started asking friends for their old shoes. Soon, Soles Renewed was born. Before long, Lehman had more shoes for women and children than he could give away. But he tried.
He’s a young guy with a young family and lately he’s had to cut back his efforts. But the need remains.
“The need existed before we started and there’s still a great need,” said Kevin Carroll, Modesto Gospel Mission executive director. “Every day for us is a giving day; we’re always giving. We give sometimes without.
“We’re called to give, not only giving of shoes and food and clothing, but of ourselves. Just trying to make a difference in one life at a time. That’s what the lady (in the car) did. And that’s huge.”
Talking to Carroll got me thinking of a little boy I met while photographer Bart ah You and I worked a story at the Mission in 1998. The boy had nothing but a stuffed animal. As I interviewed his mother, a woman and her little girl arrived. The little girl was crying. The little boy offered her his only possession. The crying stopped.
Thursday is the “Big Day of Giving” in many cities. It was created because the need for non-profits never stops, though contributions often do after Christmas. In Sacramento, dozens of groups are participating. Around here, Big Day hasn’t caught on, though the need is no less urgent.
The Mission is struggling to meet demands, the Salvation Army needs help in Modesto and Turlock. There are dozens of worthy organizations – Family Promise run by area churches, Stanislaus Community Foundation’s reading programs, Community Hospice, Haven – that all could use, well, something.
This is a daily newspaper, not a church bulletin. We all know the depth of our own pockets; I’m not suggesting anyone reach deeper. Besides, the bigger any fund-raising event becomes the easier it is to ignore. Just like I ignored that woman standing barefoot in the rain.
But somebody stopped, unbidden, to help.