Saturday, January 8, 2022

Susan Thompson-Gaines | Kindness Activist

Susan Thompson-Gaines is a long time resident of the Penrose neighborhood along the Columbia Pike corridor. She and her husband, performer David Gaines,  promote and engage in acts of kindness.

"We’ve lived in the Penrose neighborhood, on a busy corner of Penrose since January of 2000.  We’ve been here quite a while - the longest of anybody nearby. Everybody else moves around, the other houses sell, but we stay. 


My husband David grew up near here and I had a job transfer.  We decided to take it and come to Virginia. I used to be in theater, which is what my partner David does.  That's how he and I met.  Now I'm a professional sign language interpreter, which is kind of a theater of its own I guess. 


I have a project called Kindness Activist. I chose the name purposely because activism is an active word, it's a verb. It requires movement, it requires action. So instead of kindness being a passive thing, where when you see something and you just do something kind, like hold the door open for someone, or if you see somebody who's asking for money you give them some. I just kind of flip KINDNESS on the other end and look for ways to be kind.  I look for ways to do it, look for kindness happening in the world.

In the beginning I just was writing about kindness. I started Kindness Activist five years ago as a blog. I wrote about kindness that I saw, kindness that happened to me, or kindness that I did. 

When I grew up, I was taught that if you do something kind and then you talk about it, that somehow negates the kindness.  Because then it becomes about you “bragging” and “asking for the spotlight”; I was taught that kindness is supposed to be done silently, humbly. But as an adult I realized that if you are willing to talk about it, then other people are inspired to actually go out and be kind themselves! They get ideas or just start thinking about kindness.­This change of the perception changed my focus. Once I started looking for kindness, I saw it everywhere. Whereas if you're not actively looking for it, you don't notice it. All of the sudden I just noticed kindness everywhere. Like, sometimes if you check out at the grocery store Trader Joe's, the cashier might see you having a bad day or your kid is screaming, and give you a bouquet of free flowers. They don't have to give away free flowers, but it's part of Trader Joe’s philosophy to do kind things like that. Another example is Little Free Libraries. What an act of kindness those are!  They give the neighborhood, the community, books to read. 


So I was started looking at things like that and seeing things differently. Then I switched from just writingabout kindness to doing kind acts.  I love it!  I don't know if you've ever seen or listened to the songs from the Broadway show “Avenue Q”. It is a crazy puppet show for adults.  There's a line in one song that says, “When you help others, you can't help helping yourself”. That's so true, if you do something kind you feel better for the rest of the day. 

Many people reading my blog would ask me “What kind act can I do?” and I would think, “Well, that's not something that I can prescribe…”.  But reading the blog with stories of kindness would help people get ideas and then they would go out and be kind. I realized that everybody wanted to help and everyone wanted to do kind things. 

I realized that If I had money, we could do more, bigger, more grand kind things.  But I don't have the funds to do that myself. So, I started the Kindness Yard Sale!  Whoever wants to donate brings items over. All of the neighbors bring things. At the sale there's no price tag on anything - everybody pays whatever they'd like to pay. People know that all the money raised goes into a fund that is used to do kind things.  One thing funds are used for is the Christmas project, where every kid who writes a letter to Santa gets a present that they asked for on their list. I write personalized letters from Santa back to them, too, so everyone gets a letter from Santa. Yesterday, there was the most heartwarming letter to Santa from a little girl, I don't remember the toys she asked for, but they weren’t expensive requests. But the first thing the little girl asked for was more friends. It was heartbreaking. But at the same time, I thought how honest of her, to be willing to put that on paper. I texted the mom (I ask that all kids include an adult's phone number on their letter). I asked the mom, "Did you see your daughter's letter to Santa?"  and she said, "Yes, I was with her. I saw, she asked for more friends". I don't know the little girl or the mom, but Santa now can write back and say, "I saw that you asked for more friends. Friends can be difficult to make. You know how I do it?” and then I gave some advice on how to make friends, how to be a friend, things like that. 


So, money from the Kindness Yard Sale funds buying all of these gifts. It also funds winter coats for people who don't have them. It has paid people's medical bills sometimes, helped people with rent. I buy groceries for strangers a lot. Like, when we are just in line at the grocery store, just pop over and pay for the groceries of the people next to us. Instead of a Little Free Library out front, we have a little free pantry. Money from the Kindness Yard Sale paid for the supplies to build it and stocked it the first time. Now the neighborhood keeps it stocked. It always has some kind of canned meat - tuna, chicken, sardines, because protein's important, beans, pasta sauce. I refill it a lot, a couple times a day. People come all the time, at all hours of the day, even in the middle of the night. At night it lights up when you open the doors because I want it to be like grocery shopping. I want it to be a respectful experience for whoever needs it. I stock it really carefully and make sure all the foods face forward, and I put things kind of in the same place too. There's always a couple drinks, there's always some snacks. Some kids on the way to school will pick up cereal. That made me sad at first realizing that they don’t have cereal at their house. But on the other hand, now they do have cereal, you know? 

People in the neighborhood donate a lot. It seems like we have people on our front porch 24 hours a day donating in the box out there. One of the most important donations is Maseca brand flour, which seems like gold to the Hispanic community who make tortillas out of it. In the beginning, a lot of people thought the pantry was going to be for homeless people. There are homeless people who come. But even more than that, it's for families who have a roof over their head, but not enough food for their table. If you go to social services or a food bank, often you get pasta, but you don't get sauce, or you get peanut butter, but jelly is a luxury. Honey is a huge luxury. In many cultures, honey is a part of the diet and an important cultural thing, too. Honey goes super fast, jelly goes really fast, pasta sauce, really everything... And we have can openers in the pantry now, too.  Somebody bought like 120 can openers and I try to keep one in the pantry all of the time. I think we’ve been doing the pantry for a year now. It started during COVID. So many people in our neighborhood were out of work and had kids at home to feed. 


We also hosted a refugee family from Afghanistan in our home. We have a one bedroom, one bath apartment in our basement. The family we hosted escaped Kabul on the day of the bombing. A friend posted on Facebook that there was a family arriving that left the camp early. Basically, when you leave early you're kind of out of the system. They were promised that they wouldn't lose any benefits if they left early. They told us the camp was hell. Their oldest daughter was going to university still in a country in the Middle East. But there wasn’t a good enough internet connection at the camp for her to do university. So, we had a family of five - four adults, and one 8 year old, living in our one bedroom, one bath apartment. And they were so sweet. They're not here anymore. They have housing in D.C. now, but we're very much still attached and involved with them. We helped them get their whole house set up - it was amazing. They had a beautiful home in Afghanistan. They had a car, two businesses. They left everything behind for safety, to come here. They came with one backpack each, and they lost one backpack on the way. So, they came with four backpacks, five people, and that's it. At first I was collecting used things for them from the neighborhood; pots, pans, getting ready for when they were going to have their own place. They had no clothes besides what they came in. I have a lot of clothes left over from the Kindness Sale, so I would say “Here's a pile of mediums. Do any of these fit? Here's for the boys…” 


I sort of had to force them to do it, but I asked them to look on Amazon and choose items they needed. I told them, "Everyone wants to help, and no one has a tangible way to do that".  With the wish list - I could help a little, you could help a little, another person could help a little... They needed everything - a mop, an iron, an ironing board, a little portable heater, underwear, socks... I made them tell me everything they wanted, and I put up an Amazon Wishlist on my personal Facebook page. That night boxes started coming, from the people who had Amazon Prime. It was kind of like a wedding registry. In the end that family got every single thing they needed. They got a blender, a coffee bean grinder (the mom said she wanted to grind spices in it). They got everything they needed to live. And now it's all moved to their new place and they're starting over. 


I think our neighborhood is getting even more diverse lately. People from different countries, different ages. We are basically the old people in the neighborhood now, which is funny to me because when we look in the mirror, what we see is not what other people see. I don't think of myself as old, but really in the neighborhood now we're the old people. Younger people are moving in, which is fun, because now there's kind of a variety of ages. There’s more ethnic diversity here, too. We have people from India, Vietnam, El Salvador, and Pakistan, all within a ten house radius. 


At the Kindness Sale this year I had the instructions on how the sale worked translated into 20 languages.  The way it works is such a hard concept for people to understand at first. People always come up and ask, "How much is this?" in whatever their language is. And I'm like, "It's however much you'd like to pay. Whatever money you give me, I will use to help other people." "Yeah, but how much is this?" "Oh, you decide." It's a new concept for most people.  So we had signs in 20 languages: Amharic, Spanish, Russia, Arabic, Vietnamese, Farsi, French, I think there was one in Mongolian. I just put out a call on Facebook, "I have these instructions for the Kindness Yard Sale. Is anyone willing to translate?" And when checking out at the sale, some people end up saying, “I'll give you a dollar." Some people shop at it that way and that's fine. But some people will give $20 for something small. because they're really giving it to the cause, not for the paperback book or whatever. 


What I have learned during all of this is that everybody wants to help. Everybody wants to be kind, but they need an idea. Everyone so wants to help. I've always done most of my projects myself and this year for the Kindness Sale, I said I’m going to need help. People came out of the woodwork to come sort donations, hang clothes, and afterward to sort hangers, and put things away.  Everyone wants to do something kind if you give them a prompt. Sometimes people just need an invitation or an idea.


Like for the Santa project!  This year over 100 kids will write letters. I will probably two gifts for each kid. So that's over 200 things that we have to wrap!  Last year I wrapped them all myself with a little bit of help from David. But this year I'm going to host a wrapping party and just say, "Can someone come help me?" And I believe that there will be more people that we can fit in the basement that want to help.  Because that is how kindness works – it multiplies!"

- For more information, visit the Kindness Activist blog.

Photography by Lloyd Wolf.

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