It was 2013 and I was broke. I wanted to do something good, like I reckon you do deep down too, but I wanted to go about doing it differently.
It’s not that I don’t believe in the more traditional approaches to making a difference, like volunteering in a charity shop or donating to a good cause, I just felt there was another path to tread. Whether it was a better one to take or not, I figured the best way to find out was to get on and do it.
So I turned to the internet and pushed out an offer of my help, for free, to anyone who needed it. It was that vague. Had I been any one of those few people on the other side of that advert that day I’d have almost certainly ignored it, which with hindsight would have been typical of me back then.
The replies started coming thick and fast.
The first was from a couple in Plymouth. They explained that they’d offered their spare bedroom to a homeless man who within a year had found himself a job and had managed to move out of their place and into his own. “Could you help us find someone else who needs a roof over their head”, they asked. Then there was Talya, a brilliant photographer who was in the midst of a full on confidence crisis. She wanted my input because “whilst her friends and family love my work, they also love me. So what do they know?”
Gillian was the next email. Travelling over Europe from Singapore, she asked for help seeing London in the 10 hours she had here a week later. Whilst Ivan, a Brazilian man living in Florida, reached out because he was looking for someone to pitch his business to investors in London the next day. Jenny tweeted having found a memory card on the floor and wanted me to track down it’s owner, Olly, as we soon learnt his name was. There was even a couple who wanted me to host their wedding reception. A production team in the US who wanted help making a film about the female orgasm. And Vince, who as an aspiring stage hypnotist, needed me to be his hypnotised guinea pig.
Before long I was seeing a side of the internet I’d never seen before. Better still I was seeing a side of people I’d rarely seen before. In fact, through doing what I could to help these people I was seeing a completely new side of myself too.
But it wasn’t all sunny days and smiles. Take little Margot, for example. The most amazing little girl with an utterly inspirational family behind her. Margot had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia and desperately needed a bone marrow transplant. Another request landed my way from a lady in California whose husband, Ian, had lost touch with his English father decades ago and urgently wanted to reunite with him.
For each brilliantly odd ask there was one that tore my heart in two.
I had no idea what to expect when I first posted that advert. Nor did I realise what playing this role as an anonymous free helper would do to me. I learnt so much and met the most inspiring people. But ultimately I found a real sadness in those who reached out to me with serious problems, speculatively, as if they had little or no other options. To make matters worse, I knew I could only do so much for a small number of them. What difference was I really making?
And then you came to the rescue. Yes, you. Or at least people much like you. People who wanted to head down this path I had found. This sometimes treacherous, always intriguing path.
Through my blog, Facebook and Twitter I started to lean on you lot with the requests I was taking on. You gave Talya your feedback on her work and enthused her confidence once more. You used Twitter to solve Gillian’s treasure hunt clues to help her see what London has to offer. You tracked down Olly and gave him back his memory card within only 30 minutes of me asking you to on Facebook. You paid for 813 trachoma sufferers to have surgery that had they gone without, would have left them blind. 813! Hell, you even did your bit to find Margot her bone marrow donor.
It turns out you lot are better at this helping thing than I am. So what if we took this collaborating more seriously?
Fast forward to September, 2014. I’ve quit my job. Again. And I’ve built a new website for you whether you’re someone who needs help or has help to give. We’ll fight hard together to do what we can for people and their diverse set of human problems. It’ll be a hard, long slog but we’ll get there. I promise.