I’ll never forget the sound of those bells. It was late one evening, and I was finishing up after a long day as director of the Children’s Cancer Center at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. It was mid-December and our annual Holiday Card Project—which raised $350,000 a year—was in full swing. My colleague Robert and I had just finished counting and preparing more than $10,000 in cash for the following day’s deposit. With 100-plus volunteers selling cards and staffing malls and festivals, it was that time of year when we were rolling in the dough.
Holiday Card Central, where we were located, was a converted bank branch in downtown Phoenix that had been donated to the Center for the season and served as our retail operation center. While the venue was spacious, it was not located in the best part of town, so we established safety protocols for staff and volunteers to follow. Our goal was always to be done by dark, never walk alone after dark to our cars and to always lock the door when anyone was left in the store alone.
Robert and I were running late on this particular day, so after we finished counting money, I told him to head out. “I’ll be fine,” I told him. “Go on.” Four months pregnant, with a lot on my to-do list, I had a few more items to complete before calling it a day.
After he left, I began sorting packages of cards for volunteers to pick up tomorrow.
Within a minute, I heard the door bells chime again. “I wonder what he forgot,” I thought. Looking up—much to my surprise—instead of Robert I saw a dirty, disheveled man at the doorway. Obviously homeless, he wore a long overcoat partially covering torn, baggy clothes. Even more concerning was the confused, dazed look on his face.
I immediately panicked: How could have Robert forgotten to lock the door? How could I have let my guard down and not followed our safety protocol?
I stood up: “I am sorry but we are closed.”
The man didn’t say a word. Hands in his pockets, he just stared at me and started walking toward me, one deliberate step at a time.
“Sir, I’m sorry,” I repeated, trying to sound professional, in as forceful a voice as I could muster, “but we are closed. You can come back tomorrow for your holiday cards.”
No response. And that stare. He didn’t take his eyes off me.
Is he here to rob me? I thought. Does he have a gun in his pocket? Should I just give him the cash? What would I do if he attacked me? Surely, he wasn’t here to buy Christmas cards. Paralyzed with fear, I was unable to move an inch from where I was standing. I just couldn’t.
We watched each other as he continued to walk toward me, and he finally stopped right in front of me—about an arm’s length away.
“Sir, I truly am sorry,” my voice trembled, “but we are closed for the day.”
A few seconds passed. Both of his hands were in his coat pockets. Finally, he mumbled: “Are you the lady that helps kids with cancer?”
“Yes sir, I am.”
He continued to stare while pulling a hand out of his pocket. “I want to give you this to help kids with cancer.” He slowly lifted his hand to reveal a dime perched between his thumb and forefinger. He held it up proudly in front of my face.
With a huge lump in my throat, tears forming in my eyes, and a smile breaking, I held out my hand and accepted it.
“Thank you so much, sir. Your gift means… more than you will ever know.”
“You’re welcome,” he said with dignity and turned to walk away.
“Can I get your name so we know who to thank?”
“No need.” I watched him as he shuffled to the door, as slowly and deliberately as he’d come in.
“Bless you sir,” I said. “Merry Christmas!”
The bells chimed as he left.
I learned important lessons that day about grace and humility, about making false assumptions, and, most importantly, about the power of giving. I learned that giving is not just reserved for the wealthy and comfortable — everyone has the right to experience the joy of helping those in need. I also learned that day that nonprofit professionals have an obligation to help others fulfill that universal human desire to experience the joy of giving, no matter the size of the gift.
This man — obviously hurting and wanting – nonetheless had a joyful and giving heart. Thinking back on the moment the bells chimed, I am reminded of It’s a Wonderful Life, when we are told that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. An angel definitely got his wings that day.
BIO: Based in Roanoke, VA, Kim Turner is a performance consultant at Crouch & Associates.