Of Mosquitos and Tee-Shirts

“If you think you’re too small to make a difference…spend a night with a mosquito.”

I discovered this African Proverb in one of the many catalogs I receive via snail mail this time of year. It was printed in an ivory ink on a dark green tee-shirt. It struck a cord with me…reminding me that powerful gifts can come in small packages. And small gestures can have a stronger impact than we may think they can.

My elderly mother has embraced this philosophy all of her life. She is the poster child for extending a helping hand. For walking those few extra steps to complete the mile on the behalf of another person. And whether her effort was small or large, she never missed a beat. It was as if she had a specialized radar system embedded into her brain, allowing her to zero in on her opportunity to make another person’s life better, be they a stranger or a close friend.

And because I have learned from her example and have chosen to embrace her philosophy, I have also had opportunities come across my radar to make a difference in someone’s life. I am not saying this to toot my own horn, but rather to honor my mother.

When I was in design school, there was a sweetheart of a gal who was always struggling financially. She worked a couple of part time jobs while maintaining her studies. Her home life was less than ideal. She was a slightly-below-average student. Not terribly creative. Definitely not a bright star on the horizon.

But she was hard-working. And passionate about the profession she had chosen. She never missed a class and always turned her assignments in on time. She was the kind of person you would want on your creative team. Not for her artistic talents. But for her reliability. And her dedication. And her enthusiasm.

She never seemed to have enough money for art supplies, so she was always borrowing them from another student. Usually from one of the few friends she had made. And very often from me. I never minded. I knew her story. And I knew how embarrassed she was every time she had to ask.

I wanted to help her. But in a way that would not make her feel like she was getting a handout. So, I made a deal with the manager of the art supply store at our school. He and I had come to be friends and he knew this gal’s situation. I gave him $100 and told him to present it to her in the form of a gift certificate, and tell her that she won it in a random drawing. And to never tell her the money really came from me.

After we graduated, we were all gathered at our local watering hole, celebrating our achievement and sharing our future plans. And that sweetheart of a gal came up to me and thanked me for paying for that gift certificate at the art store all those semesters ago. Because it was during that time she was seriously considering leaving art school and getting a full time job. She said if it were not for that gift certificate renewing her faith to keep on going and to stay in school, she wouldn’t have made it to graduation.

Now, I tried to play dumb, but she had my number. She said she knew it was me all along. She insisted that she wanted to do something for me in return.

I told her there was only one gift I would accept. I told her that some day someone would cross her path who needed her help, which would require no great effort on her part. I asked that she give that person the help they needed. And if that person would ask what they could do for her in return, that she should ask the same of them that I was asking of her.

I lost track of this sweetheart of a gal after graduation, as we all went our separate ways. A few years later, I ran into one of her old gal pals from art school. They told me she was working for a non-profit organization as a production manager and loving every minute of it. I could not have dreamed of a better situation for her. Or a more dedicated production manager for that non-profit.

Small gestures, like that $100 I gave to the art store for a gift certificate for a gal who was short on funds, can make a huge difference. And I don’t mean that money is always the answer, because it is not. The answer lies in keeping those specialized radar systems embedded into our brains in good working order. So we can zero in on the opportunity to make another person’s life better, be they a stranger or a close friend.

Simply because a gesture is small, does not mean it is not powerful. Or that it cannot have a far reaching impact. And if you are still not sure this is true…ping me after you have spent an evening with a mosquito.