Jon Potter was filling up his car at a Pittsburgh gas station when a woman approached and asked for a ride to a battered-women’s shelter. He said no.
She walked away, and he quickly felt a wave of regret. He got out of his car to look for her, but she was gone. Feeling terrible, he vowed to be kinder next time a stranger needed help.
A few weeks later, in the spring of 2015, he saw his opportunity when someone on a Pittsburgh Reddit group needed a hand installing a television antenna. Potter, who is handy, did it for no charge and felt great about it. Then someone on the same Reddit group asked for a cat sitter, and he jumped at the chance.
“It snowballed from there,” said Potter, 29. “I decided that for the next year, if anyone asks me for help, as long as it’s legal and as long as it won’t harm anyone else, I’d do it. It sounds ridiculous, but I did it.”
Soon, he was committing near-daily acts of kindness in the Pittsburgh community: helping someone repair vinyl siding, moving furniture, fixing a leaky roof, changing a grandmother’s tire on the side of the road. All for free. He even raised $700 for a teen in his community who was injured while stopping a hate crime.
His one year of goodness was so fulfilling that he has turned it into a four-year stretch of saying “yes” to random requests from strangers, gaining Potter fame in Pittsburgh for his hundreds — perhaps thousands — of kind acts, winning him awards, and making him the subject of local media attention.
“There is this Reddit lore of him,” said his friend Johann Guldenschuh, who met Potter when Potter agreed to help Guldenschuh and his wife move to the Pittsburgh area in 2017. “There are all these legends of these cool things he’s done, and they’re true.”
On Reddit, person after person gushes about how Potter (username pghparagliding) offered to help when it was most needed. Guldenschuh is one of them, writing:
Another user wrote:
Potter upped the ante on his generosity last week, donating a kidney to a stranger after seeing on Reddit that a Pittsburgh father of two was in need of a transplant.
The man, Michael Moore, 57, had put out a plea on social media through his daughters.
“What are the repercussions of giving a kidney to someone?” responded Potter, who saw the post late at night. “I’m at the point in the night where I’d be open to giving a kidney to a stranger.”
Never one to back down from a good deed, he found out he could live a long and healthy life with one kidney. Then he got tested and learned he was a perfect match for the man in need.
He had to do some persuading to get his wife of about year, Rachel Adler, on board, but she came around to the idea. The surgery was Aug. 13, and both men are recovering and doing great.
“I’m just blown away by the fact he was willing to do it,” Moore said, detailing the many appointments, tests and rigorous screening process Potter went through.
In the months before the donation, the two men met and became close friends. Per doctors’ orders, Potter had to lose 20 pounds before the surgery, which he did. He also overheard Moore saying he was going to install a French drain in his backyard and offered to help.
“He goes, ‘I won’t charge you anything for it,’ ” Moore said, laughing. He insisted on paying Potter for his work.
Before Potter’s do-gooder lifestyle began four years ago, he was a paragliding flight instructor, and most of his work hours fell on weekends. He was generally free on weekdays and had what he described as a bare-bones lifestyle. Instead of trying to earn more money during the week, he made the decision to dedicate himself to helping others.
It has had a profound effect on Potter, who says he has struggled with depression and anxiety since he was 8 years old. Last year, he was diagnosed with high-functioning autism and said the realization was a “huge puzzle piece” in his life. He said that pushing himself to interact with people by helping them has given him new appreciation for others.
“I trust a lot more now than I did in the past,” he said. “I trust people’s intentions more.”
Two years ago, he formalized what he does by creating the website Pittsburgh Good Deeds, where people can ask for help and also volunteer their services. Potter now works as a handyman, and when he quotes his clients a price, he tells them to pay what they can. He said enough people pay the full price to keep him afloat.
“I get what I need,” he said. “I’m not very religious, but at this point I definitely believe there’s an order to my life and there’s an order to the universe, and I believe the order is good.”
Are some people he’s helping scamming him? Maybe. He said it doesn’t matter.
“It’s worth the risk of getting scammed, compared to the possibility of helping someone or saving somebody’s life,” he said.
He gave a recent example of a father who posted on Reddit that he was thinking of killing himself because he was going through a separation from his wife and he needed an immediate $2,000 to pay his bills.
“Everyone was like, ‘This guy is a scam,’ ” Potter said. “I was like, ‘It might be true. What if he’s really going to kill himself?’ ”
Potter ended up going to the man’s house and lending him the money — the most he has ever lent out — and said the man was extremely grateful and is already starting to pay him back.
“It’s very sobering,” Potter said. “No one else was going to help this guy. In the past, I never would have said yes.”
Another example: Early in his kindness blitz, someone posted on Reddit at 1 a.m. that a friend who had just graduated from high school had lost his wallet, was stuck at a party and needed a ride home in the sweltering summer heat. Potter said other Reddit users were giving the guy a hard time, saying “find your own ride” and “who is going to give you a ride at 1 a.m.?”
“Everyone was bashing on him,” Potter said.
But Potter had a feeling about it. He put his Rottweiler in his car in case he needed protection and picked up the teen. On the ride home, Potter ended up talking through some of the teen’s problems with him.
“He said he didn’t want to go to college — he just wanted to stay around town and sell drugs. I told him, ‘Maybe you don’t want to do that,’ ” Potter said. “We talked for 30 minutes about his doubts. He sent me a note later and said thank you.”
And Potter’s generosity has inspired others. When a local group awarded him $500 for being an exemplary community member, he posted about it on Reddit and asked who needed the money. Several people responded that they needed help, and others contacted him to donate more money.
In the end, “I have $1500 that I’m giving away,” he wrote in an update.
He posted that he used the funds to help two people get bus passes for work transportation, buy groceries for several other people, pay a gas bill for another, fund new shoes for a struggling nurse with foot troubles, contribute to a service trip in Costa Rica — and for many other causes.
Potter said helping others has brought on a big turn for the better in his own life, especially by keeping his depression and anxiety at bay. He highly recommends his unusual lifestyle and likes encouraging others to help people when they can.
“Even me, with all these hindrances,” he said, referring to his autism and anxiety. “If I can do it, you can too.”