Channeling Mr. Toms

The return address caught my attention – it read United States Department of the Treasury. On that December morning, we opened that envelope first. At any nonprofit, the end of the year is an exciting time. Checks arrive with greater frequency than any other time of the year. But, when you get something from the Treasury Department, you get a little concerned.

My first thought: Uh oh. What did I do wrong?

Upon opening the envelope, we discovered a modest check. The memo read Bureau of Prisons and was followed by a series of numbers. I recognized the numbers as a prisoner ID. I turned to a colleague and said, “I think we just got our first donation from a federal prisoner.”

I went quickly to my computer and began trying to learn more. I found his name and learned it did not connect him to any of our tutors or students. In fact, he had been in prison long enough that he couldn’t have possibly ever known any of our tutors or students on the outside. He was from DC. We learned he was about 20 years into a life sentence for a series of drug crimes in the early 90s.  This was, put simply, a gift from a stranger – we’re not even sure how he knows about our work!

The amount is also worth noting. Given the absurdly low wages paid to working inmates, I quickly realized that the contribution likely represented several weeks, if not a month, of this man’s pay from his prison job. And, in prison, money is generally needed for any personal comforts – extra food, toiletries, or stamps. He could have, without doubt, used the money himself.

It became clear that this small gesture was an act of extraordinary generosity.

At Reach, we try to be generous each day. Generous in the patience we show, in the forgiveness we give, and in the support we provide. But, Mr. Toms, this new supporter, taught us about true generosity – the kind that happens without request and without expectation of reply.

I wish I were more like Mr. Toms.

As part of our year-end fundraising campaign, we made a commitment to gift copies of our teen-authored children’s books to schools and programs that serve students in need. We will be giving away 1,000 of these books in the next four months. If only a little, we hope these donations inspire and engage young readers across the city. And, we hope to use them to recognize those that have been so generous to Reach – people that demonstrate the type of generosity Mr. Toms showed.

We will give these books to honor people like Jamila Larson. Jamila is the Founder of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project (HCPP). Last summer, she spent time talking about her work with Reach’s summer program participants. We will donate books to HCPP’s program sites in honor of her incredible generosity.

Additionally, in the last year, we’ve worked with Free Minds Book Club to facilitate poetry workshops with our teens. To thank the young men and women who volunteered their time, we will make book donations in their honor to classrooms at the elementary schools they attended. Through this small gesture, we hope to express our gratitude for their generosity.

I’ve also written to Mr. Toms. I hope to learn where he went to elementary school. If I do, we will excitedly donate books to a classroom of students at that school. While he now lives many miles away, his generosity is spreading across The District.

Inspired by his gift, we’ll keep giving.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

PS – If there is someone you’d like to honor with a book donation, please email us at the address listed at the bottom of this page.

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