This year, let’s resolve to make a difference


I gave up making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago, because I never kept them, and I got tired of starting my new year with personal failure. But as our economy begins to heal and we feel the glimmer of optimism as a new decade begins, it might be time to rethink that stance.


For the last several months, I’ve watched a segment on the “NBC Nightly News” called “Making A Difference.” While some of the features deal with celebrities who go above and beyond the call for their fellow man, the bulk of the stories deal with ordinary people who do something extraordinary to help others.

Some of those segments almost brought me to tears.

There was the story about Brad and Libby Birkey, who own a restaurant in Denver, Colo., and who believe that everyone deserves to eat well, despite their ability to pay. At their restaurant, customers order off the menu and pay only what they can. They say they’re still making a profit, by the way.

There was the story about Lionel and Mischa Thompson, who found themselves in desperate economic circumstances, but were moved when friends and neighbors started turning up at their home with donations of food and money. Once they were on their feet again, they gave back by starting, a website that allows donors to give anonymously to people in need and pairs donors with people who most need help.

There was the story about Joe Works of Humbolt, Kan., who lost half of his manufacturing business to the tough economy, but refused to lay off any of his 180 employees. Instead of working in his manufacturing shop, he paid his employees to perform public works projects. They repainted churches, built baseball diamonds and improved playgrounds.

There were lots of other stories, but the message of all was simple: Many of us in this great country are only a few paychecks away from disaster, and the only way we’ll come through intact is for those of us with means to reach out to those without.

But because many of us who are still getting by are doing it with limited means, we need to get creative.

That’s my resolution — to find and share some affordable ways to help others — and I’d like to challenge my readers and local governments to make it with me.

It doesn’t have to be painful; we just need to think outside the box. For example, a story in The New York Times last week noted an innovative program in the public libraries in Joliet and Palos Park, Ill. Those libraries gave patrons with hefty overdue book fines a way to clear the slates. In lieu of the fines, they could donate canned goods or other groceries to local food pantries. Patrons simply take the amount they owe in fines, divide it by half, and donate that many items to charity. If the fine is $50, for example, the patron can erase his fine by donating 25 items.

That is beautiful in its simplicity. The libraries get their books back, patrons are off the hook, needy families are fed and everybody wins.

Programs like that could certainly work in New Jersey, but I don’t think we have to limit them to libraries.

Why couldn’t local governments offer the same deal to people with unpaid parking tickets?

Why couldn’t schools offer that deal to the families of students with unpaid fees?

Why couldn’t youth groups or volunteer organizations work a modified version of that deal and complete projects for people or families who couldn’t afford it otherwise? In my neighborhood, for example, there are several elderly citizens living on fixed incomes who simply can’t afford to paint their houses or landscape their yards. But what if a Boy Scout troop or other organization offered to do that work for them at a discounted rate — say 50 percent — and donate the proceeds to charity?

Again, everybody wins.

I believe that the old adage “All of us are smarter than any one of us” is absolutely true. That means that the possibilities for helping each other are limited only by our collective imaginations, and our collective wisdom. In other words, they are virtually unlimited.

As we start the new decade, I’d like readers to send me their best ideas for making a difference. I’ll share the best in this column, and together we’ll try to make something positive happen in 2010.

And if you know someone in your community who is making a difference, let me know about them and I’ll share those stories as well.

• • •

I tried to pay attention, but I couldn’t get very worked up about the big fight between the Fox network and the Time Warner Cable system.

As you know, Fox was threatening to pull all of its programming from the cable system unless it got a payment of about $1 per subscriber from Time Warner. Time Warner, which had never paid for rebroadcasting Fox content, thought maybe 30 cents per subscriber was more reasonable.

The two companies duked it out with competing full-page ads in national newspapers and long editorials on Fox News stations that devotedmore time to telling people what jerks the folks at Time Warner are than telling viewers what happened in the entire world that day.

Although this whole thing was about corporations making even more money than they already make, or keeping more of what they have, both sides tried to make it sound like a consumer issue.

Fact is, consumers are going to end up paying no matter what the terms of the last-minute compromise the companies worked out might be.

Does anyone think that if Time Warner pays Fox a compromise fee of 50 cents per subscriber, they’ll eat the loss? Or will they simply pass the cost on to consumers in the form of higher cable rates? And what happens if other networks start demanding similar per-subscriber fees from the cable companies?

We all know what will happen, don’t we? Either we’ll be looking at even higher cable bills or drastically reduced programming.

I’ll tell you this, however: I hope the network that carries all those home-improvement shows my wife is always watching does go away. If she didn’t get so many ideas from television about projects to add to my to-do list, my life would be a lot simpler, and a whole lot more affordable

I might even be able to afford a satellite dish.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at