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What goes ’round, comes ’round, they say. In this story from the Washington Post “Optimist” newsletter, a drugstore cashier helped out a customer, and when the customer devised a way to acknowledge the favor, she learned that lots of people loved the cashier.

Cathy Free reports, “Real estate agent Rina Liou realized she had a problem as soon as she reached into her purse for her wallet at a Houston [Walgreens].

“She had stopped at the store to buy lightbulbs for an open house that would start in less than 30 minutes, but she had left her wallet at home. …

“ ‘I was pretty flustered,’ said Liou, 35. ‘I didn’t know what to do.’

“Liou, feeling a bit of panic, wondered how potential buyers would react when they couldn’t turn on the lights at the townhouse she was showing on that day, Sept. 7, she said. But then Walgreens checker Rita Jackson Burns spoke up:

‘I’m a little short on funds because I only have $20 in my checking account, but I’ll go ahead and pay for this for you,’ Liou recalled her saying.

“Then Burns pulled out her personal debit card. When she rang up the lightbulbs, Burns said she was relieved to see that they were on sale, costing $12.41.

“ ‘I was a little embarrassed that I only had $20 in the bank because I’d just paid my bills,’ Burns recalled. … ‘I wanted to help, because I know that if I were in a bind, I’d hope that somebody else would do the same,’ Burns said.

“Liou thanked Burns profusely and told her that she’d return later that afternoon to pay her back. She kept that promise. ‘She gave me $15, plus $30 extra, and told me to put it in my bank account,”’ said Burns, 58. …

“A few days later, Liou decided to take her gratitude one step further: She posted about her experience on her neighborhood’s Nextdoor page, and dozens of people chimed in, wondering how they could show their appreciation for Burns. Then Houston’s KHOU-11 television learned about Burns’s kind deed, and things really took off.

“Burns has worked at the Walgreens on Stella Link Road for 38 years and knows all of the regular customers, she said. Many of those people, including Michelle Suh, wanted to recognize her decades of service behind the cash register.

“Suh decided to organize a GoFundMe campaign called ‘Gratitude for Ms. Rita’ to reward Burns’s contributions as an essential worker during the coronavirus pandemic.

“ ‘Ms. Rita is a neighbor in the truest sense of the word,’ Suh wrote. ‘Until Walgreens and our country pays our essential workers more, let’s step up to make sure Ms. Rita has more than $20 in her account. … She has given us so much kindness, and we would love to show her how much she means to us,’ Suh added.

“The fundraiser has reached more than $11,000, and thankful customers have left dozens of comments.

“ ‘Ms. Rita, your smile and kind words greeted us every time we walked into the store,’ wrote Sandi Mercado, who donated $25. ‘On a bad day, you made us forget our troubles for a few minutes. On a good day, you shared in our laughter. … If you ever wondered if people notice your kindness … they do. We do.’ …

“ ‘The world needs more kind people like you,’ added Emilie Mavligit, who donated $10.

“Burns said she is stunned by the generosity. … She is the main provider for her husband, Robert Burns, a retired steel cutter, and their adult son, Jarrell.

“ ‘I’m going to save some of the money for a rainy day, but I’d like to donate a portion of it to help children in some way and show them what can happen if you help others,’ she said.”

More at the Washington Post, here.

Photo: Rina Liou via KHOU-11

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Photo: Ann Hermes/ Christian Science Monitor
Christopher Scott, left, and Steven Phillips, who spent a combined 37 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, were finally exonerated and are determined to pay it forward.

When I worked at the Fed magazine, I solicited a couple articles from the Innocence Project, which has a branch in New England. I continue to be impressed with the complicated, difficult work they do to exonerate men and women who’ve been wrongly convicted and sent to prison.

Today’s article is about two unjustly imprisoned men who got eventually got exonerated and decided to help others.

Henry Gass writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “The busiest P.O. box in North Texas may be in a drab, beige hallway in the post office of this Dallas suburb. [It’s] full of letters, mostly handwritten and postmarked from prisons across the country, addressed to what may be the most unusual detective agency in America. …

“The man who empties the box is Christopher Scott. Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, he dresses sharp, talks in the gritty patois of the South Dallas neighborhood he grew up in, and uses his bright smile sparingly.

“Under normal circumstances, he probably wouldn’t know Steven Phillips, and they most likely wouldn’t be best friends or partners in a detective agency. They’re from different backgrounds and different generations. While Mr. Scott navigated urban streets as a youth, Mr. Phillips grew up in the country, in the Ozarks. …

“Yet for all their differences, these two men – one white and one African American – have forged a common bond around a common purpose: trying to get people out of prison who should never have been there in the first place. Their Dallas-based nonprofit, House of Renewed Hope, also campaigns for criminal justice reforms and raises public awareness about how the system often fails.

“But it is the tantalizing prospect of uncovering new information that might, just might, free other innocent men that drives Mr. Scott and Mr. Phillips the most. They spend their days meeting clients in prison, tracking down and interviewing family members, friends, and potential eyewitnesses. They meet with prosecutors and activists, lawyers and experts. …

“The two men spent a combined 37 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, crimes for which they were eventually exonerated. That’s why they read every letter they receive. They know there are others like them behind bars. …

“ ‘We was wronged,’ [Scott] says. ‘If you don’t want to see this happen to a lot of other people, there’s things that we can do, because we’ve been a part of that system before.’ …

“One April night in 1997 he was riding around his neighborhood with a friend, Claude Simmons. On their way home, he noticed a heavy police presence in the area and a helicopter flying overhead. A familiar nervousness crept in. …

‘So I’m scared, but I’m not too scared,’ he recalls. ‘In my head I’m thinking the law, the justice system, is going to get it together and figure it out.’

“Instead, he was identified by the wife of the slain man as one of the attackers. She had been sexually assaulted and her husband shot dead during a home invasion. No physical evidence linked him to the crime, and her testimony was crucial in convicting Mr. Scott in a trial that lasted only four hours. An all-white jury sentenced him to life.

“In prison. … he read three books a week, including law tomes, looking for ways to prove his innocence. He compared notes and exchanged tips with other guys in Coffield filing innocence claims in courts.

“His break came when a group of law students at the University of Texas at Arlington discovered that two other men, one of whom was in prison for aggravated robbery, had committed the murder for which Mr. Scott had been convicted. The prisoner confessed, and in 2009 his accomplice was arrested in Houston.

“After Mr. Scott passed a six-hour polygraph test, he was exonerated; Mr. Simmons was also exonerated. The two men were brought before a judge in Dallas and declared innocent. …

“ ‘I was like, “Dude, I asked for this 13 years ago, and they didn’t give it to me.” But I was happy. I knew I was going free. It was over.’

“When Mr. Scott got out, Mr. Phillips was waiting for him. He was in the courtroom for the exoneration hearing. Afterward he introduced himself and told him to call if he ever needed anything. Mr. Scott was wary at first – with everything he’d been through, he says, he didn’t trust white people – but after a few days living with his mother he did call.

“Mr. Phillips let him stay at an apartment he owned, lent him some money, and even bought him a cheap car.

“A year later, after going to regular meetings with other exonerees, Mr. Scott set up the House of Renewed Hope using some of his compensation money from the state. … He asked Mr. Phillips and Johnnie Lindsey, another exoneree, to be co-founders. …

“He’s getting close with one case. House of Renewed Hope has teamed up with the Innocence Project of Texas to try to exonerate Leslie Davis, a man who served 28 years in prison for aggravated robbery. His conviction was based largely off testimony from a Dallas police officer who claimed he’d eavesdropped on Mr. Davis confessing to the crime while hiding in some bushes.

“Some other Dallas officers gave similar testimony around that time in the early- and mid-90s, earning the nickname the ‘Bushmen’ with some county prosecutors, and it later came to light that several of them had been disciplined internally for dishonesty.

“ ‘That’s something that should have been disclosed to the defense and was not,’ says Mr. Ware of the Innocence Project of Texas.

“Mr. Davis was released on parole several months ago, but he is still trying to clear his name. ‘It’s close,’ says Mr. Scott. ‘We just need a little more information.’ ” More here.

 

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As costs come down, solar and wind energy are being embraced in interesting places. Stereotypes about Texas and Big Oil will have to go.

Matthew Rozsa reports at Salon, “The notion that Texas might become a hub for renewable energy innovation isn’t that new. As Forbes noted earlier this month, Texas — which produces 37 percent of America’s crude oil and 28 percent of its natural gas — has more than 10,000 wind turbines, allowing it to produce more power from wind than the combined power produced by 25 other states from all energy sources.

“Similarly, The Wall Street Journal reported [in 2015] that Texas expects more than 10,000 megawatts of solar-generating capacity to be installed across the state by 2029, which is almost the size of all the operational solar farms in the United States today.”

Rozsa quotes Texans who were interviewed by Voice of America in October:

“ ‘A lot of wind companies have evolved to include solar and wind because solar has become so cheap. It is quite competitive with not only wind, but with fossil [fuel] generation,’ said Andy Bowman, chairman of Pioneer Green Energy.

“This point of view was echoed by Jennifer Ronk, a renewable energy expert at the Houston Advanced Research Center. ‘There is a lot of research being done, a lot of development being done,’ she argued. … ‘I think there is a mix of solutions that are going to be the optimal outcome.’ ”

I’m pretty sure that cost factors will ensure the continuation of renewable-energy research — if only at the state level.

Photo: Getty/Spencer Platt
Turbines at a wind farm in Colorado City, Texas, Jan. 21, 2016.

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Photo: Isabelle de Pommereau
Anja Reefschläger has taken Ahmad Madarati and other refugees under her wing since they arrived near her Berlin home last year.

The Christian Science Monitor always has great stories about good works around the globe, and this one on ordinary Germans who are volunteering to help refugees get settled is no exception.

Isabelle de Pommereau writes, “ ‘Frau Anja.’ Hearing this name for a Berlin volunteer who teaches refugees German – and has become a second mother to many of them – brings a smile to Ahmad Madarati’s long, sad face.

“Mr. Madarati, who fled war-torn Aleppo, Syria, and Anja Reefschläger met on a freezing November morning last year. …

“Today, Madarati works practically gratis at a youth center in Berlin, helping young people build furniture. And in a few weeks, he is set to move out of the so-called Treskowallee camp into a house. The house is next to Reefschläger’s, and she is the one who persuaded the owner to rent it out to Syrians.”

Ordinary Americans are also showing kindness and warm hearts, even when state government refuses to participate.

In Texas, for example, when the governor refused to sign on to the federal effort to resettle Syrians, ordinary Texans and nonprofits stepped up to the plate.

Jim Malewitz writes at the Texas Tribune, “Texas’ top elected officials have not exactly welcomed refugees over the past year. [In September] Gov. Greg Abbott followed through on his threat to end cooperation with the nation’s refugee resettlement program because federal officials refused to ‘unconditionally approve’ a Texas plan requiring extra vetting of applicants. Such a move will not keep refugees from coming here, but it eliminates the state government’s role.

“But everyday Texans seem to be more willing to help refugees from Syria and elsewhere start new lives in the Lone Star State. Nonprofits that resettle refugees say volunteer turnout has increased — in some cases dramatically — since Texas Republicans first suggested they threatened security.” More. See also an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, here, for details on the critical role of nonprofits and volunteers in Texas at this point in time.

I have personal knowledge of the many volunteers reaching out to refugees in Providence via the Providence Granola Project (how about giving their yummy products as holiday gifts?), the Refugee Dream Center, Genesis Center, and Dorcas International. The Diocese of Providence is also at the forefront of service as an official resettlement agency, like Dorcas.

You know what else? I just heard of a woman in my town who is selling her house and moving to “wherever she’s needed.” She wants to use her years of language-teaching skills to help refugees.

[10/15/16 Update: Read about the outpouring of support for refugees in Lowell, Mass., here.]

Photo: Marjorie Kamys Cotera
A group gathered at Wooldridge Park in Austin on Nov. 22, 2015, to show support for refugees.

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The website “The Dodo: For the Love of Animals” recently posted about a man who built a little choo-choo train to give dogs rides.

Stephen Messenger writes, “Eugene Bostick may have officially retired about 15 years ago, but in some ways that was when his most impactful work began. Not long after, he embarked on a new career path of sorts — as a train conductor for rescued stray dogs. …

“Over the years, Bostick has taken in countless abandoned dogs. But more than just keeping them safe, he’s found an adorable way to keep them happy, too.

“While the rescued dogs have plenty of room to run and play on Bostick’s farm, the retiree thought it would nice to be able to take them on little trips to other places as well. That’s about the time he was inspired to build a canine-specific form of transportation just for them.

” ‘One day I was out and I seen this guy with a tractor who attached these carts to pull rocks. I thought, “Dang, that would do for a dog train,” ‘said Bostick. ‘I’m a pretty good welder, so I took these plastic barrels with holes cut in them, and put wheels under them and tied them together.’ And with that, the dog train was born. …

“The dog train has come to attract a fair share of attention among locals who occasionally stop to ask if they can take a few pictures. But for Bostick, it’s all about bringing a bit of joy to a handful of dogs who had been through so much before finding themselves as his cheerful passengers.”

Bostick tells Messenger, “Whenever they hear me hooking the tractor up to it, man, they get so excited, they all come running and jump in on their own. They’re ready to go.”

More.

Photo: Tiffany Johnson/Facebook

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In a move that will benefit the environment, farmers are placing increased emphasis on the quality of their soil and cutting back on ploughing. It took a kind of soil evangelist to create the revolution.

Erica Goode has the story at the NY Times.

“Gabe Brown is in such demand as a speaker that for every invitation he accepts, he turns down 10 more. …

“Mr. Brown, a balding North Dakota farmer who favors baseball caps and red-striped polo shirts, is not talking about disruptive technology start-ups, political causes, or the latest self-help fad.

“He is talking about farming, specifically soil-conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, ‘green manures’ and other soil-enhancing methods with an almost evangelistic fervor.

“Such farming methods, which mimic the biology of virgin land, can revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers’ profits, their proponents say. And by using them, Mr. Brown told more than 250 farmers and ranchers who gathered at the hotel for the first Southern Soil Health Conference, he has produced crops that thrive on his 5,000-acre farm outside of Bismarck, N.D., even during droughts or flooding.

“He no longer needs to use nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide, he said, and he produces yields that are above the county average with less labor and lower costs. ‘Nature can heal if we give her the chance,’ Mr. Brown said.” More here.

Sounds like wisdom that even a backyard farmer could embrace.

Photo: Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times
“My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money,” [says Texas farmer Terry] McAlister, who farms 6,000 acres of drought-stricken cropland. 

 

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Here’s a good one from the radio show Living on Earth (LOE).

“At Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, an environmental science professor teaches sustainability by example, transforming an empty dumpster into a tiny apartment where he’s lived for a year. Professor Jeff Wilson tells [LOE] host Steve Curwood about life in his micro home and his long-term goals for Project Dumpster.

CURWOOD: “Dr. Jeff Wilson, aka Professor Dumpster, is teaching sustainability by downsizing his living quarters to the dimensions of a dumpster – a clean dumpster, mind you. Jeff Wilson joins me now from his steel abode on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, where he’s Dean of the University College and teaches environmental science. Welcome to Living on Earth, Jeff, or, do you prefer, ‘Professor Dumpster?’

WILSON: “I’ll take Professor Dumpster and you’re at my disposal.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] “Right now you’re in your dumpster. What kind of headroom do you have?

WILSON: “Well, it’s a standard 10 cubic yard dumpster, which means it’s six foot by six foot at the base. And this one’s actually quite tall; it’s about seven feet…. I’ve got a wooden false floor, so the actual height of standing room is about 6’2” right now. I’ve got a window unit air conditioner. I have a few tapestries hanging on the wall. I have a twin bed and then a very small bookshelf on the corner with various things like an Oscar the Grouch mug …

“The main point of this entire experiment is to test if one can have a pretty good life on a whole lot less. … A lot of people asked why we used a dumpster instead of a tiny house or instead of even a container, and the reason we did that were some of the awareness and educational aspects of this project around addressing waste. And dumpsters, you know, are these magical boxes that we put our waste into and come back a few days later … and everything’s disappeared. So we want to highlight some of those subjects as well. …

“One of the things we’re interested in is the increased interactions with the community and the environment when you’re in a smaller home like this, sort of what that might do for one’s sort of quality-of-life and sense of experience and just the overall magic that is brought into the everyday. If you want to call it dumpster magic.”

Find the rest of the interview transcript, plus the audio version and pictures, here.

Photo: Jeff Wilson
Egress from the the professor’s dumpster home can be challenging. 

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Around the country, generous people have been “paying it forward”– doing a good deed for someone else that was done for them.

Only in this case, it’s more backward than forward because it involves paying for whatever the person behind you at the drive-thru has ordered. It’s become surprisingly widespread, according to Kate Murphy, writing at the NY Times today.

“If you place an order at the Chick-fil-A drive-through off Highway 46 in New Braunfels, Tex., it’s not unusual for the driver of the car in front of you to pay for your meal in the time it took you to holler into the intercom and pull around for pickup. …

“You could chalk it up to Southern hospitality or small town charm. But it’s just as likely the preceding car will pick up your tab at a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through in Detroit or a McDonald’s drive-through in Fargo, N.D. Drive-through generosity is happening across America and parts of Canada, sometimes resulting in unbroken chains of hundreds of cars paying in turn for the person behind them.

“Perhaps the largest outbreak of drive-through generosity occurred last December at a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. A string of 67 cars paid it forward in April at a Chick-fil-A in Houston. And then a Heav’nly Donuts location in Amesbury, Mass., had a good-will train of 55 cars last July.” More.

I love the idea, but I think I missed something. Do you give the order taker an extra $20 and get the change when you pick up your meal at the next window? Or does the cost of the stranger’s meal have to go on your credit or debit card?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Drive-thru food outlet

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I took modern dance in high school. The teacher was said to have studied with Isadora Duncan, and she certainly liked that flowing kind of movement.

Miss Hinney once challenged us to choreograph a dance about an abstract topic. Page and I chose Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen, for which we used music from the Firebird Suite. We were not allowed to act it out as if we were Lavoisier, rather we had to interpret the chemical reaction using dance. It was impossible, so we were naturally very proud when we pulled it off.

Since then I have felt a great respect for the inventiveness of choreographers.

Here is one who sounds pretty cool. Allison Orr has closely observed garbage men in Austin, Texas, and has made their movements into a dance. More recently she worked with employees of the power company.

Robert Faires at the Austin Chronicle describes “The Trash Project, her award-winning, phenomenally popular collaboration with the city’s Solid Waste Services Department (now Resource Recovery) that made dancers of sanitation workers and the machines they operate. … Now, the Forklift Danceworks artistic director is at it again, albeit with a different city department, Austin Energy, whose employees are the focus for PowerUP. …

“For Orr, who’s made a career of making dances from the movements of people who aren’t trained in the art form – firefighters, gondoliers, roller skaters, orchestra conductors, Elvis impersonators, traffic cops, et al. – the personal stories of her subjects have become as important as their moves. She talks at length to the people with whom she collaborates on a dance and weaves recorded excerpts from interviews into the performance as the subjects are moving,” The latest Production, PowerUP was performed in September at the Travis County Exposition Center. More.

Photo: John Anderson
Power company choreography.

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As long as no one is hurt and there is not too much damage, hail is a rather wondrous phenomenon.

I was in Central Falls a few years ago to interview someone, and suddenly the whole world changed. I pulled my car over and just submitted to the racket as hail stones clattered against the roof. Nothing to do but wait.

There is something leveling about hail. People’s differences fade in the face of Nature showing who’s boss.

Dale Lezon had a hail story in the Houston Chronicle this week: “Residents in Hitchcock and Santa Fe woke up to broken roofs, shattered windows and dented cars after softball-sized hail battered the communities late Tuesday night.”

I especially liked the picture.

Photo: Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle via AP
Christine Hubbard shows off hail stones she collected Wednesday, April 3, 2013, in Hitchcock, Texas.

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