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$5 was a small gift that meant a lot
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Last week I stopped in at a local Carl's Jr. when I noticed a bicycle and some belongings parked just outside the door.

I didn't give the bike much thought. After all, it seems like there is a proliferation of homeless persons in the county with possession-laded grocery carts and bikes with makeshift trailers everywhere. The problem, to me, seems worst in Turlock although the scene repeats itself in Ceres and every city in the county.

I walked inside and was third in line. The man at the counter began ordering food and produced a coupon, to which the second guy became very curious. The second man interrupted and asked where the man got the coupon and his reply was a curt "In the mail." He said it like "Go away and quit pestering me about the coupon." The second man then asked the store employee where he could get a coupon and was told they didn't have any.

The dire interest in the coupon showed me the man was obviously in great need. He didn't look dirty or unkempt and he wasn't begging for money.

I ordered my food and then asked for the key to use the restroom. It was then that I wondered if I had any money in my wallet since I usually transact everything by debit card. I did have a $5 bill in my wallet. I pull it out, folded it in half and gave it to the man.

"For real?" he said, rather surprised.

"Yeah, for real," I replied.

He thanked me and went back to the counter to order more food.

I stood there a while, waiting for my to-go order, and glanced at the customer who had redeemed the coupon who was also waiting. He gave me a nod and then a thumbs-up for what I had done. An emotion came over me that put tears in my eyes. This stranger gave his approval for my small act of generosity when he did not bother to do so much as to buy the man a burger or anything. Apparently he felt like a heel.

The order was taking a while and I sat down. The man to whom I gave money walked over to where I was sitting and held out a hand of a dollar and some change and offered, "Do you want the change?"

Never in my life did I have someone in need offer back change. No, I told him to keep it. In minutes I would be in my toasty car on my way to a warm house in a beautiful neighborhood. How dare I ask for the change.

He reached out and shook my hand, said he was Richard. His hand felt rough, like he worked with his hands or perhaps chapped from the weather. He told me how he lost his car, that it was impounded in Ceres and that he was trying somehow to get enough money to get out of storage. He shared his enthusiasm that he was going to get back on his feet.

I was filled with compassion for Richard and took an interest in what he had to tell me. The $5 was such a small token but it conveyed to him that somebody cared. I'm sure he gets enough brush-offs and avoidances. I told him to keep the faith and when my food was ready, I shook his hand and told him "God bless!"

At least a handful of other times I have helped buy food for people who were in obvious need, one time for a couple who had a cardboard sign outside of an El Pollo Loco. I went to the counter, bought them some food and took it to them. They seemed so very appreciative and shared how they were trying to scrape enough money to rent a room for the night since they were homeless.

I used to be hard-hearted about those on the streets. I felt I was only enabling them. I'm softer now. I picture myself in their shoes and would want somebody to reach out and help me. Now I see them as victims of a government that has sold our jobs to other countries and feel some hope now, with a new president, that things will turn around.

Don't get me wrong. I am still resistant to help anyone who looks like they are strung out on drugs. I'm not about to hand money to someone who is only collecting enough to support his or her habit. But if I have a sense that a person is in need, I try to help. Part of my softer side I credit to Sarah, my sweetheart, who has a less judgmental heart when it comes to the downtrodden and it's rubbed off.

I have noticed how many more people seem in need in our area these days. I've seen makeshift homes made of tarps in vacant lots - even saw a tent behind the huge lot behind the Burger King on Oakdale Road in Modesto. This week there is a man with a shelter set up at the western edge of the Turlock Cemetery. I've seen camps along the Tuolumne River near the Ninth Street Bridge and sleeping bags under the Waterford-Hickman bridge. It's everywhere.

The world is full of need. We just have to look around and our eyes will see it.

How involved do we want to get, however, into helping need those needs? For most people, not much involvement, if any.

The Christmas season is here and people are knocking themselves out to buy, buy, buy. It's a month-long financial splurge for family and friends. But it's all a perversion of the real reason we celebrate.

I'd prefer to see us all demonstrate the spirit of love and caring extended year round — not by always buying gifts but serving and doing for those out of our comfort zone.