Unemployed D.C. man giving money away to strangers to help foster kindness

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

The guy behind the meat counter is looking at Reed Sandridge kind of strangely. Giving away $10 every day to a stranger -- an idea Sandridge had soon after he was laid off from his job at a Washington nonprofit group last fall -- isn't as easy as it sounds.

Carlos Canales, a 28-year-old butcher at Eastern Market, is hesitant to take the money. "What do I have to do?" he asks.

No strings, no hook. Sandridge, 36, a businessman-turned-shoe-leather philanthropist, just wants to help. His mom, the daughter of a coal miner whom he remembers most for her kindness, always told him that when you're going through tough times, that's when you most need to give back.

So not long after he was laid off, on the third anniversary of his mom's death, he started his "year of giving," documenting each $10 gift in a small black notebook and then blogging about the people he meets. By Day 94, he had given away almost $1,000, handing out money in blizzards, in rainstorms, on the sunniest of days. He gave $10 to a guy playing the trumpet outside Verizon Center, the president of a brewery, someone dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, a hard-drinking PhD, a man who held up a basketball to block helicopters overhead from eavesdropping on their conversation, the curator of a small museum and a whole lot of homeless people.

Sandridge, who is outgoing and has a ready grin, and, sometimes, a brown scruff of almost-beard, knows $10 is precious little, even to the most down-and-out. It feels significant only when the daily donations are subtracted from his shrinking bank account. He's been using his savings and a few hundred a week in unemployment benefits to pay the mortgage on his home in Dupont Circle. But he hopes he will network his way to a salary again long before he runs out of cash.

A learning curve

But the year of giving is not about the money. Sandridge is trying to spread an idea. Doing nice things all the time is addictive, he said.

Besides, he added, "being unemployed, I was starting to go nuts."

He wanders the city looking for strangers who appear as if they might need help or have an interesting story to tell. He has a few rules: He gives only $10, and he doesn't take anything in exchange.

He's getting better at it. The first three times he tried, people refused, suspicious, and walked away. Now, he easily persuades people to take his money -- even Canales, after a few moments, accepts the $10 bill -- and to tell him what they're going to do with the unexpected gift.

Every once in a while, he knows the money really helps someone. It pays for a meal or turns someone's lousy day into one that feels lucky.

On his fifth day, in the middle of a fierce snowstorm, he met Davie McInally, a Scottish man with icicles frozen in his thick beard who was carrying his belongings in a backpack and trying to get to New York to enlist in the military. McInally hoped to serve on active duty and earn his citizenship, and the $10, added to his $14, made a bus ticket possible.

"I am sure there have been quite a few people now that those 10 dollars have really helped, or made their life or even their days a lot better," McInally wrote in an e-mail.

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