Spreading the Word on Good Deeds

Dafna Michaelson is traveling the country putting together a most unusual collection: the good deeds selfless Americans are doing to better their communities. She then write of those missions on her Web site.
Dafna Michaelson is traveling the country putting together a most unusual collection: the good deeds selfless Americans are doing to better their communities. She then write of those missions on her Web site.

Many of us . . . the BEST of us . . . mark the New Year by resolving to do good things in the twelve months to come. And if we feel we need a road map to show us the way, Barry Petersen knows just the person to turn to:

Dafna Michealson is traveling America putting together a most unusual collection . . .

Not of objects, but of ordinary people who do extraordinary deeds.

"I definitely didn't know how incredible of a country it was, but at the core I knew we were made up of really good people," she said.

People like the Arizona crime-fighting housewife . . . the Oklahoma man who helps troubled boys . . . the doctor who makes pottery to fund his medical missions overseas.

"I want to know what it is to solve a problem," Michaelson told Petersen. "I want to know what it feels like to be the person who raises their hand and says, 'It's up to me to do this."

That desire to know fed an idea that fueled a year-long mission . . . visit one state each week and interview people changing their communities, and then share their stories to inspire others.

"When people tell me I'm crazy, I tell them they're right!" Michaelson said. "And you know what? It takes a little bit of crazy to make a difference."

And once she got the idea . . . she couldn't let go.

"Sometimes you get that burning inside of you where you know you can make an impact, you know you can touch someone's life," she said.

In San Francisco she met software engineer and amateur musician Ed Hernandez.

He saw school kids missing a part of growing up . . . a chance to develop a love for music.

"A lot of people have horns they have from college, high school, that they don't play anymore, but they just haven't gotten rid of," he said. "You can find 'em.

"It's interesting when you see a kid get something, you know? And they've been trying to figure something out. They're having trouble with a note. And then it clicks. And you know, you can just see the light turn on in their head."

With donated instruments and volunteers that he helped organize, the hallways of Horace Mann Middle School now echo with the results.

"So he created this music program for a school and touched lives in a way we probably won't be able to tell, because he's changed the course of a child's future," said Michaelson.

In America's heartland, Michaelson found Todd Vinson.

Vinson felt teenagers from dysfunctional families in his Oklahoma community needed help.

"Our mission for Willow Springs Boys Ranch is to take boys that are in a crisis or in a difficult family situation, to give them tools to make it in life," he said.

Vinson raised donations, took over a family ranch and made a safe haven for them.

"We have had probably four boys graduate to date, we had two graduate last year and we've got three that graduate this year, and all three of these young men will go to college," he said.

He didn't wait for government help. He did it himself, and doesn't find that so unusual.

"We've got a lot of people in this country doing a lot of good things," he said. "Doesn't always show up on the news."

"I believe very strongly that problems in your community are solved at home, by you, by your neighbors, by the people in those communities," said Michaelson.

There have been about 350 different stories that Dafna has collected during her journey, stories that she brings home each weekend to her dining room table in Denver to put on the Web and share with the world.

She does that with help from her fiancé Michael Jenet, who uploads each week's interviews to her Web site, 50in52journey.com.

She quit her job and planned to fund her trips with donations, but they dried up in the recession. So she's paid for the airfares and rental cars and hotels from cashing in her 401(k).

"Is it perfect? Do I get to retire at 65? I can't imagine that at 65 that I'm going to be much interested in retiring anyway," she said.

Divorced, she travels on the days when her kids are with her ex-husband.

She searched the Web, made calls or got suggestions by e-mail for people to interview in each state, looking for Americans with a just-do-it spirit that began in pioneer days.

"They understood, the pioneers, that in order to be successful they not only had to plant their fields and build their farms, they also had to help their neighbors plant their fields and build their barns, and together they built the church and then the schoolhouse. That's how communities were built in this country."

Neighbors, working together, like the Harmons of rural West Virginia. Tom Harmon is a doctor, Patsy a nurse-midwife.

"Everyone, really, should do their part to try to make the world better," Patsy said.

They practice in West Virginia near where they grew up amid hardscrabble poverty. At their clinic, they treat the poor who can't pay a penny just as well as patients who can.

"It just seems like the right thing to do," Tom said.

"I think, you know, having been poor ourselves by choice, because we lived in a rural area on a commune, that we have more sympathy than some people do for the poor," said Patsy. "And I think we've always wanted to be of service to people."

Then Tom spun a love for pottery into a way to raise money for their medical missions to Central America. They saw a need beyond what governments were doing - "Not enough, in our opinion," laughed Patsy.

Tom says their mission is enjoyable: "It's a very gratifying thing to help other people."

In Phoenix, Ann Malone helped her community fight crime.

It started when Ann discovered that a man with a history of assault, robbery and drug use was illegally camping behind her Phoenix home.

"He could see right into my backyard and climb over the wall anytime he wanted," she said.

"And this gave you a sense of, what?" asked Petersen.

"Terror, yeah," she laughed.

Police considered it too time-consuming to deal with misdemeanor crimes . . . until Ann went door to door and got 18,000 homeowners behind her.

Now shops are reopening, in part because crimes like trespassing, drinking in public and aggressive panhandling have declined - this after police (under pressure from Ann) started enforcing misdemeanor violations and checking suspects' backgrounds to see if they were wanted.

"It's more work for you?" Petersen asked one police officer.

"More work initially, but in the long run, less work," he replied.

"And it makes a difference in the neighborhood?"

"Sure, sure does," he said.

Ann Malone said that, prior to becoming a community organizer, she thought of herself as "somebody's mom."

"So what's it like now to be someone who has done this and sees the results literally on the streets?" Petersen asked.

"It makes me so happy to know that what we've done together, has worked," she said.

Michaelson's next mission is organizing conferences where people who made it work in their town can share stories and strategies with those anxious to do to same where they live.

"What I've learned about this country is that we really are great, we really have great people, we really are built from a fiber and a core that says whatever it is that has to be done, this is the place to do it and we're going to do it," Michaelson said.

A collection of different people who share a single belief . . . that change comes one determined person at a time.

For more info:
Willow Springs Boys Ranch