Random Acts of Kindness: The history and purpose of the column

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May 8, 2005, marked the first appearance of a random act of kindness in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Actually, that’s not quite true. In its 228 years of operation, the Post-Gazette has provided many tales of Pittsburghers doing good deeds for one another, expecting nothing in return from those they assist. But on that date nine years ago, the Post-Gazette formalized an approach to get such acts into print.

Every Thursday the Random Acts of Kindness column appears on this page, containing factual anecdotes written and submitted by the public about the help they have received from others, or which they’ve witnessed strangers doing for one another. Judging from readers’ comments, it quickly became one of the most popular features in the newspaper, a welcome reprieve from the tales of crime, war, corruption and so forth that inevitably dominate other pages.

Pittsburgh is often referred to as a “large town” rather than as a city, and one reason is its inhabitants’ readiness to go an extra step for those in need — not just family members and friends but neighbors, co-workers, casual acquaintances and yes, those they’ve never encountered before.

This year alone, the column has chronicled :

• 25 times when people volunteered cash or gifts to strangers who seemed in need.

• 21 occasions when help was offered to those having some sort of trouble with a vehicle.

• 12 episodes when individuals thought they had lost wallets, purses, jewelry, phones or other valuables, only to have them returned as a result of some honest soul’s effort.

• 12 more times when someone suffered some sort of fall or injury in public and others rushed to their aid.

• 8 restaurant encounters when diners were stunned that anonymous fellow patrons had paid for their meals.

• 7 episodes in which strangers went out of their way to assist lost motorists or pedestrians.

• 3 cases of special care given to people’s pets by others who realized they were in need.

• 29 encounters that fit none of the descriptions above, but were examples of small but meaningful gestures that — as is often stated by writers at the bottom of these letters — restore one’s faith that good, caring people exist.

Is Pittsburgh exceptional in the preponderance of such acts? In that first Random Acts of Kindness column in 2005, Tina Fletcher of Westmoreland, N.H., gave the notion some credence when describing how Pittsburghers helped her with lost luggage and tracked her down to return money belonging to her.

“I’m from a very small town in New Hampshire where everyone knows everyone, and to come to a city like Pittsburgh can be a little overwhelming,” she wrote. “Thank you, Pittsburgh, for making our stay so enjoyable.”

Regardless of whether strangers receive the same treatment in other cities, it’s uncommon for a metropolitan newspaper to provide a forum solely to publicize such deeds; the Post-Gazette does so both because the letters can be a pleasant antidote to more sour news, and because they can inspire readers to try to emulate such conduct.

Why are we telling you all this today instead of providing another few Random Acts of Kindness letters? The truth is there’s been a recent lull in contributions of good anecdotes we’d like to print. Consider this a request to do your own good deed and take a minute to help publicize the kind acts of others when you receive or see them. But we have a few guidelines:

• As the name of the column implies, we’re interested in those helping others for whom they have no responsibility, as opposed to those doing so as part of their jobs or relationships.

• We don’t identify, other than by something general like a first name, those carrying out the good deeds. The point is that they’re willing to help others regardless of individual credit.

• We focus on actions by individuals rather than businesses, to avoid becoming a forum for commercial endorsements.

• People should tell stories about the good deeds and not merely thank others for them. It is not interesting to others to read a thank you list, but descriptive details of how one stranger lent a hand to another can put a smile on a face and send a powerful — and hopefully contagious — message.

If you can describe such a Random Act of Kindness in anywhere up to 400 words, email it to page2@post-gazette.com; or write to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

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