Local Philanthropist

Author Julie Powell attends the premiere of "Julie & Julia" at The Ziegfeld Theatre, in New York, on Thursday, July 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)
AP Photo/Peter Kramer
In this week's "American Hero" segment, The Early Show reports on a man who discovered that sometimes you don't have to be Bill Gates to be able to fund a charity and change people's lives.

So many of us have been there — suddenly tripped up by an enormous phone bill, a broken car, an unexpected expense we just can't afford. As people like Keith Taylor know, it can make the difference between just squeaking by and breaking the bank.

Taylor makes a modest salary as an assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University. But if it weren't for the support of his friends and family during his starving student years, Taylor says he wouldn't be here.

"All of them made it possible for me to go to school, not lose an apartment, not ever be homeless," said Taylor. "And nobody ever gave me more than a couple hundred dollars at once, ever."

With that support, no matter how small, Taylor's career got off the ground. Now he has a decent car, a small but comfortable home and an infinite amount of gratitude.

About six months ago, Taylor decided — not exactly to pay them all back — to pay it forward, just like the movie. He said that he's going to help three people and each of them will help three more people.

And, to help others, this man of moderate means decided to become a philanthropist — a modest one.

"There was no point in sitting around waiting for something to happen that wasn't going to happen," explained Taylor. "Not gonna get the 20 million, not … not at least any time soon. And so I decided I would start the Web site."

The idea is simple. Each month, through his Web site, modestneeds.org, Taylor donates $360 or 12 percent of his salary. Although the request from a person in need must be for an unexpected expense and in a modest range — about $50 to a few hundred dollars — the responses have come pouring in through the Internet and regular mail.

"When I started this, I really didn't have any idea that this was gonna be the volume of mail I was gonna get," said Taylor.

Over 6,000 people have written to Taylor, and so far, he has been able to help about 250 of them — people like Theresa and Steve Wright of Jacksonville, Fla.

Their second grandchild was stillborn, but the family did not have enough money for a headstone, let alone a funeral. So, they wrote to Taylor. Last month, the headstone was installed.

Frank Fazio is a medical student in New York City. Last semester, he didn't have enough money to buy all of his textbooks. He wrote to Taylor, who was able to help. It was not a lot, but the $138 Fazio got from Modest Needs made a huge difference.

"It is almost a godsend, because I can actually continue my education now," said Fazio.

Lisa Logsdon couldn't afford the special glasses her disabled son Zane requires. Without them, Zane's brain cannot process what his eyes are seeing. Lisa asked Taylor for $50 as a down payment towards the glasses.

"He didn't think that was enough so he decided to go ahead and fund us fully," said Lisa.

Today, with additional help from a therapist, Zane is making tremendous progress.

"When you see your son look at you for the first time and say, 'That's Mommy' … of course it is joyous because now I know that he can see me," said Lisa.

Taylor says he is thrilled that his small salary can go such a long way. But what really moves him is the incredible kindness of the people who write in.

"This envelope came in inside another envelope. No return address, nothing," said Taylor. "I opened it up. Four quarters taped to a postcard. That was really great, that was really nice."

Because of donations like this, and, of course, larger ones, Taylor now has thousands of dollars to give away each month. But it's not just cash.

"People have absolutely been astonishingly kind with one another," said Taylor. "People seeing one another's needs on the Web site and offering to help each other. The really nice thing about it is it's built a little community."

A community, he says, of some of the least likely philanthropist — just everyday people.

"What we forget is that we have a lot more money than Bill Gates does if you put what we have together," explained Taylor. "You know, we have more than that in our pocket change."

And, according to Keith Taylor, that change represents a lot more than money.

"I always believed that people were generally good," said Taylor. "I always have chosen to believe that. I never really had the proof before Modest Needs. Modest Needs is the proof. You know, that's … it's the proof that people are good."

Modestneeds.org has generated so much attention — both in terms of requests and contributions — that Taylor is hoping to expand the site and set up regional locations. But remember, this is still a small operation. If you do write to him for aid, the requests should be modest. For long-term assistance, there are many larger charities that might be more suitable to assist you.