A Girl Knocks on a Stranger’s Door

Have you heard of Common Cents? It’s a non-profit organization based in my burg, New York City, that encourages school children to “harvest” the pennies in their neighborhoods—that is, the pennies most of us have sitting in a jar that just keeps getting heavier and heavier. Cool idea, right?

The kids put notes under the doors of their neighbors saying that they are running a penny drive. Then, on the appointed day, they stop by to pick up any pennies their neighbors would like to donate. It’s like the Girl Scout cookie drive: Knock knock. Who’s there? A cute little kid doing some good in the world.

Even better, once a whole school has run its drive, the kids themselves research and decide where the pennies – now hundreds of dollars — should go. To a homeless shelter? Food pantry? School supplies for kids with none?

The whole process gets them thinking about the world and participating in democracy. But to me, the best part is that it gets them out in their communities, connecting with their neighbors. (Yes, the way I used to do when my mom sent me out to collect donations from our neighbors for the March of Dimes.)  

Anyway, it’s the harvesting part that I want to tell you about.

One little girl had done her bit and given all the neighbors in her apartment building the note that explained the project and that she’d be coming by. She happens to live in public housing.

On the appointed day, she was knocking on this door and that, and when she went in the stairwell to climb up another  flight, she was surprised to find, Scotch-taped to each step, a penny!

She followed them up, up, up till she got to the next floor. There, a line of taped pennies led down the hall. They stopped at a door. She knocked on that door and – an old lady answered.

“Why did you leave a whole trail of pennies?” asked the girl.

Replied the old lady, handing her a jar: “I didn’t want you to miss me!”

Now, if you’re like most folks (including, I must admit, me), you probably worried that the pennies led to a Hansel & Gretel-type situation. And I suppose if your kids are going to do a penny harvest, it’s best for them to go in pairs. (Click here to go to find out more about  Common Cents.)

But a little old lady like this reminds us all: Most people not only ARE good, they want to DO good. And, as Common Cents and common sense both  suggest:  this only happens when we  connect.

 — Lenore

25 Responses

  1. Too bad we don’t hear more of these sorts of stories in the media or chatting with other moms at the park.

  2. Of course not, Brooke. What sort of story would that be? “Kid goes out, doesn’t die. This is the zillionth day in a row that this kid has remained alive. Stay tuned for more up to the minute updates!”

  3. And because we don’t hear those stories, we believe that crime (of all sorts) is the norm, not the exception, thus perpetuating the fear.

    I want a newscast that talks about the good people do in the world (like these kids and their pennies), instead of car crashes, murders and fires. Wouldn’t that be a much nicer thing to see before going to bed? 🙂

  4. If it had been anyone but you, I would have expected the hammer to drop on the Hansel and Gretel scenario.

    But most people are good.

    In our neighborhood, though, most people don’t answer their doors.

  5. What a wonderful story. And I’ll admit, and I think it’s mainly because of the leading into the story you did, I was ready for bad news. Hansel and Gretel-type news. You’re a good writer, Lenore!

  6. Ok, how can we get Nancy Grace off the air? She personifies this issue of media hysteria.

  7. What a sweet story. Our neighborhood is FULL of lonely elderly people who would love for a kid to knock on their door and make them feel needed and appreciated. Unfortunately, the kids are all too busy at soccer/swimming/piano practice to get to know their neighbors.

  8. This is a great story! Tonight at eleven, “Local 5th Grader returns safely home on foot from nearby elementary school. Community is scandalized.”

  9. I love the vision of the old lady taping all those pennies to the floor just awaiting her pickup. Perhaps the collection teams could consist of one kid and one senior citizen. The perfect community outreach.

  10. If this story WERE on the news, it would be followed up with a stern recommendation to never ever do this, as this girl was EXTREMELY lucky, that she didn’t knock on door of any of the overwhelming number of Dangerous Strangers!

  11. Very nice story!

  12. A lovely story !!!!!

    Yes, we need to hear more of them.

  13. Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  14. That little old lady must have had great fun taping those pennies to the floor! What a sweet story. Thank you for doing what you do Lenore – please keep up the great writing!

  15. I let my kids do some scary things on the playground, slinging themselves around the horizontal bar and jumping off the swings and so on. I get some glares. Once my kid did a face plant in the dirt and I got some huge glares … but the kid was fine, and just shrugged it off and went back to playing. I figure they learn to be resilient and to use good judgment about what they can/can’t/should/shouldn’t do. The risk? There’s some small chance they’ll break an arm or something, and more of a chance than if I hovered over them making sure they didn’t go too high on the swings and whatever.

    Nobody talks about all the kids who don’t break their arms!

    But then nobody thinks it happens to all of them.

    And nobody thinks that every kid who goes alone to a stranger’s apartment will be abducted or molested. There are lots of kids who don’t get abducted or molested. People do overestimate the risk, but they probably underestimate how devastating the consequences are in those rare cases. It’s not just risking something like a broken arm that is an inconvenience until the cast comes off.

    That’s my disconnect with the argument being made here. Being overprotective is bad. Overestimating dangers tends to cause overprotectiveness. But the real risk has to take into account the likelihood of a bad result AND the magnitude of the badness of that result. That seems to be a point completely missing here.

  16. Love this story!

    For those who complain that the news is always bad and that they want a “feel good” news show, check out Sunday Morning on CBS – they do a quick recap of headlines in the beginning (60 seconds or so) but the rest of the hour and a half is human interest stories and fun/interesting/sweet things about this country and the people in it!

  17. Since reading that op ed about the 10 yr old boy who walked himself to soccer practice (safely, I might add, because ironically the entire community who was so horrified to see him walking were the same ones who were keeping him safe), I have been making a conscious effort to see the good in my community. Instead of searching faces for signs of sneakiness I am just noticing actual faces. What I am seeing are lots of people of all ages who are simply joyful and enchanted to watch my 3 and 5 year olds be little kids. They see them ride by on their tiny bikes and they giggle. They pat their heads in the grocery store, sometimes offering them a treat (not to poison them, but to thank them for being young and innocent). They watch them play from their living room windows and from benches at the mall and they smile and discuss what their children where like when they were small.

    It is comforting to open my eyes and feel a sense of community. As my children get older, I am approaching a sense of certainty that they are enfolded in a society that is inclined to help them be safe, not enable their demise. That’s what teenage friends are for, but cross that bridge later 🙂

  18. Great story. I wish we could hear things like this in the media, but unfortunately it just doesn’t have the shock and awe factor. Little Old Lady and 5th Grader Learn the Value of Neighbors and Put a Smile on Each Others’ Face!

  19. Thank you for that story! We do need to remember that people really ARE good, the exceptions are very few and very far between.

  20. Yes, thank you for sharing this wonderful story. It reminded me of many things from my childhood.

    1. Going door-to-door by myself to sell various products to raise funds for school clubs and sports teams — in elementary school.

    2. Working as a paper boy for several years, waking early every morning to deliver the papers, and going door-to-door to collect the subscription fees.

    Elementary school kids never come by to sell products for fund raisers. Their parents bring the stuff to work! Even high-school age kids come in pairs for the same task.

    I don’t know of any newspaper that still has kids deliver. Yes, I know a few horrible abductions occurred. I do suspect that most people got better service from kids, however.

  21. Quote from Alex above: That’s my disconnect with the argument being made here. Being overprotective is bad. Overestimating dangers tends to cause overprotectiveness. But the real risk has to take into account the likelihood of a bad result AND the magnitude of the badness of that result. That seems to be a point completely missing here.

    Alex, I would not say that most of us are missing the idea that bad things could happen here. We understand the risks, and assess how much attention (and of what type) each merits. Yes, the thought of my daughter being kidnapped and dying in terror is a horrifying consequence, and if all I thought of was the consequence, I could never let her do anything. It’s extremely unlikely, but I’m maybe a little more aware of the risk than average, because I remain convinced I was almost kidnapped at just her age.

    Rather than hover, and never let her navigate the world by herself, I’ve chosen to educate her about how to manage the risks. At the end of the day, I CANNOT watch her every minute, the rest of her life. The only person that can do that is her. Someday, she’s going to face the world, and if she hasn’t had opportunities to learn to use her judgment, the consequences of a mistake will be just as horrifying as they are now, while she’s a teen.

    At the end of the day, it’s not just about reducing the risk while the child is young. It’s about teaching them how to take risks and make them safer while they are young, so that when they are older, they know their limits far better and have judgment they can apply when mom’s not just around the corner.

    The risks don’t just disappear when we grow up. The ones we fear the most are not the ones that are most likely, nor even necessarily the most preventable. You might let your child ride in a car, play on a trampoline, and swim all in a single day, and unwittingly increase the risk of fatality far more than the risk that someone is going to come along and snatch him while he’s at the park with friends. Just an example, but I’m sure you can see what I mean.

  22. Thanks for the story! It reminds me of a very eldery lady who lived near us when we were little. She was on oxygen and had a large white cat. You almost never saw her. but she loved the Girl Guide cookies and so looked forward to us going to ask if anyone wanted to order and then later dropping them off. She called one time after she’d been in hospital to find out if she had missed out. We were one of the highlights of her year having my sister and I visit about the Girl Guide cookies!

    And you know what… she left a lot of her stamp collection to me when she moved, I was probably 9 at the time. Your story reminded me of this lovely lady!

  23. I love watching the reactions from elderly strangers when Edna Junior waves, smiles, or even babbles in their direction. She loves it, and I bet it makes their day.

    -Edna Kay

  24. Talk about neighbors keeping an eye on children: My brother and I grew up next to an electric railway that had both trolley cars and freight trains. One day (around 1950) we were out watching the daily “gravel train” rumbling by when Mrs. Havelin, from up the street came down to catch a “Red Car”. She saw us watching the freight and told us about a boy who tried to “hop a freight” and had his legs cut off! During this same period, there was a man who got around on a wheeled platform and sold pencils downtown. The combination of these factors made sure we didn’t try “hopping a freight”–ever!

  25. that’s adorable. 🙂

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