Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Returning from vacation this summer, I pulled off I-80 in Pennsylvania at a truck stop to get gas. I filled up the tank, paid in cash, then I went to the restroom before heading home.

Back in Meadville, I stopped to get groceries. No wallet. Hm. I realized I must have left it in the restroom. I had about $100 cash in it. My first thought: it’s a truck stop; a lot of people pass through. If someone did find it and didn’t return it, I figured he or she needed the money more than I did. My mom felt certain someone would return it.

One problem: I had no idea where I’d stopped.

I knew it was a Travel Center of America. I checked my odometer: 183 miles. I called the corporate headquarters. A kind woman suggested I could have stopped at Milesburg or Lamar. She called Milesburg with me on the line. Nope. I told the woman that I remembered that the restroom was by the ATM machine and the sodas.

“That’s Lamar.”

I called Lamar. Loretta answered the phone. “Yes, we have it in the safe. Josie, a waitress, found it and turned it in.”

A few days later, I drove back to Lamar. I wanted to meet Loretta and Josie in person and thank them. I had a hand-written note for Josie. I tucked some money inside. I’ve worked as a waitress.

Josie tried to wave off my envelope. It’s a thank-you note, I said.

She accepted it. I shook her hand. I thanked her again.

“If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me,” she said.

I spent a chunk of my summer swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, spending hours reading books for fun at the beach and listening to programs by the British Broadcasting Corporation on my shortwave radio. The story of the summer was one of waves of refugees arriving on the shores of Turkey and Greece, fleeing the ravages of war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last Thursday in our journalism classes, we discussed the photo of the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan, a refugee who drowned and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. We discussed the ethical considerations of running an image of a dead child. The students agreed it was a harsh photograph that reflected a harsh situation. The world needed to see it, they concluded.

It can be too easy to turn away from devastation and horror if it’s not impacting your life, your family. You may feel there’s nothing you can do. By the end of the summer, I didn’t want to hear the stories. My heart hurt. And the stories stirred images of my own work when I had documented refugees fleeing conflict.

One BBC report told of women arriving hungry and exhausted from their odyssey across the desert and the sea. The reporter described how the women used their last shreds of strength and will to push their children onto the trucks, to hurl them to strangers if necessary.

My mind instantly projected a memory, an image of a time when I stood at the Kenyan border watching Somali refugees appear in the shimmering heat, near skeletons in ragged clothes heading for the hoped safety of a refugee camp in Liboi. When the women arrived, they would heave their children into the back of the United Nations trucks. They wouldn’t have any remaining strength to pull themselves onto the vehicle.

In August, before classes began, I listened to a report on National Public Radio.

Ari Shapiro was in Izmir in southwest Turkey where Syrian refugees board boats at night to cross to Greece. He shared the story of a man who joined 40 others who piled into a raft made for 10. The boat sank. Many died.

Smugglers and local merchants take advantage of the refugees’ plight. Shapiro reported that going rate for the short boat crossing to Greece is $1,200 per person.

He then told the story of another man, a Turkish merchant, who lets refugees charge their cell phones at his restaurant. He offers them water and food, free of charge. He lets women and children sleep in his upstairs offices, even though it’s illegal.

“These are people who are running away from war, and if I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me,” said Ali Demir, the restaurant owner in Shapiro’s story.

When I was a young photojournalist, I wanted to save the world with my photographs. In my years in Africa and the Middle East, I realized that it’s my actions as a human being while I do my work as a journalist that make the difference. And we’ve talked about this in our classes, too.

No matter where we live, each day we are given opportunities to show kindness, to offer assistance.

As Josie the waitress in Lamar, Pennsylvania said, “If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me.”

As Ali the restaurant owner in Izmir, Turkey said, “If I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me.”

If it were me. A thought that inspires action.

From one person to another, a simple, tender gesture of kindness can make a world of difference.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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