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Thursday, August 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Anonymous donations grew a bumper crop of kindness

Los Angeles Times

INDIANAPOLIS — The money in the white envelopes bought one cancer patient a beautiful ham. It bought nine disabled children an afternoon of golf and giggles.

True, some money may have been squandered on an addict's high. But it did buy an exhausted mother a massage.

In $50 increments, the money in the white envelopes spread hope. And it left some folks thinking they could make a difference in the world.

It started one Sunday when Linda McCoy, pastor of a free-spirited church called The Garden, preached about kindness — or as she put it, sowing seeds of love. Then she held up 50 envelopes. An anonymous donor had filled each with a $50 bill.

Anyone could take one, no strings attached. All the donor asked was that the money be used for good.

"We can make this world a better place," McCoy told her congregation. "What a wonderful adventure."

Many who picked up the envelopes spent weeks pondering how best to spend the $50. Teachers and plumbers, therapists and nurses found themselves driving the streets of Indianapolis, studying the worn faces they passed, looking for a need they could meet.

"I wanted to make a difference in someone's life," said Loretta Johnson, an insurance underwriter.

As it turned out, the envelopes made as much difference to the givers as to the takers. The middle-age, middle-class members of the congregation found themselves listening to strangers' hard-luck stories with empathy instead of skepticism. The donor had trusted them to use the money wisely. They took that trust and passed it on.

"The older I get, the more cynical I've gotten. I see what goes on in the world, and I'm disgusted. But this project helped me see there's still hope," said Carol Meeks, a home economist who used the money to grow a huge garden that will provide fresh produce for the hungry.

"Sometimes, we're too focused on what's wrong with other people. This project encouraged you to see the good in them," added Mary Jane Mesmer, a business consultant. She gave the money to an Amish family that a friend had met by chance in a hospital coffee shop. The family, from rural Indiana, had come to the city for their son's kidney transplant and seemed bewildered and afraid. Mesmer thought they could use a stranger's kindness.

Such kindness proved contagious again and again.

Many participants easily tripled or quadrupled the $50 as friends, touched by the donor's generosity, opened their wallets. Dee Caldwell, a real-estate agent, raised $325 to take 40 low-income kids to play with the baby animals on her farm. Nurse Patty Fredenburgh raised so much money for her Special Olympics golf tournament that she's buying the children team T-shirts.

The phenomenon of one good turn sparking another is rooted in our psychology.

When we see someone do a good deed — such as an anonymous donor filling 50 envelopes with cash — it elevates our view of human nature. That elevation can produce physical changes: the proverbial lump in the throat or tightness in the chest. It also triggers altruism. Once elevated, people often feel inspired to do good deeds, according to Jon Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor who has spent years studying this reaction.

Haidt calls The Garden's project a "brilliant" way to leverage elevation by creating an ever-expanding chain of good will.

"This is one of the most effective uses of $2,500 that I've ever heard," he said.

Not that elevation is always instant. Donna Hoffman, for instance, thought seriously about keeping the $50. A single mom who drives a school bus, cleans houses and is writing an inspirational novel about angels, Hoffman figured she deserved the cash.

She kept the envelope for several weeks. It didn't feel right.

"I kept thinking, 'You know what? I'm rich,' " Hoffman said. "I'm rich in my heart because I have an opportunity to do something with this money." She gave it to a friend, Pam Burleson, who cares for a brain-damaged son.

"I was really, really touched," Burleson said. So was Hoffman, who proudly reports that "the world now feels a little smaller, a little less frightening."

Similar stories of epiphany have been buzzing through The Garden in the three months since McCoy handed out the white envelopes. After distributing the envelopes, she devoted her next four sermons to the subject of giving. She showed clips from the movie "Pay It Forward," in which a 12-year-old boy sets out to change the world by doing good deeds for three people and asking them each to show kindness to three others in turn. She also videotaped congregation members talking about how the project affected them.

The donor who launched the campaign is thrilled.

A self-described "child of the Depression," accustomed to scrimping, the donor said she found it hard to give away so much money all at once. It was especially tough to hand it to strangers — who, for all she knew, might blow it on a steak dinner.

Yet she filled all 50 envelopes, hoping the jolt of such an unusual gift would make folks look at the world differently. She made the donation anonymously to keep the focus away from her.

"I wanted to make an effort to engage people, to show them that they could go out and do God's work," she said.

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