Pay it forward: Can a simple act of kindness compel others to do the same?
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Editor’s Note: Over the next several months, the Bangor Daily News will highlight a local Pay it Forward movement with stories of ordinary people benefiting from acts of kindness and how they chose to pay that kindness forward.
For weeks, Cindy Emerson could not reach him, the young boy with the quick temper.
She knew his background, that he was introverted and broken and unable to express his frustration. She knew he had no release, no outlet. She knew that he punched and kicked and slammed and crashed.
Every visit the emotionally troubled 6-year-old made to the Child and Adolescent Partial Program at The Acadia Hospital was a lesson in patience and restraint for clinicians like Emerson.
The only place at Acadia that calmed the boy’s mind and body was the music room. The simple strum of guitar strings produced smiles. The soft sounds made him forget.
But the oversized body of the hospital’s lone acoustic guitar did not match his own undersized frame. He couldn’t easily play it.
Emerson had an idea.
What if we buy him a guitar? A smaller one that suits him?
Aren’t you worried that he will just smash it? a co-worker asked.
Of course, Emerson said, but isn’t it worth trying? Nothing else has worked.
It was only a few months before Emerson’s light-bulb moment with one of her toughest clients that a man named Rick Bernstein had come to The Acadia Hospital. Bernstein met with some hospital staff members and shared the idea of Pay it Forward, a concept depicted in a novel and movie that challenges recipients of good deeds to find ways to pay those deeds forward, not back.
He wrote the hospital a check for $500 and encouraged staff to use that money to start incorporating Pay it Forward into the Child and Adolescent Partial Program.
The boy and the guitar was not the first story of Pay it Forward at The Acadia Hospital, but the tale has been retold countless times throughout the hospital ever since. And for good reason.
Emerson, it turns out, knows a little about guitars. She’s been playing for several decades now and has gotten pretty good.
Her own introduction to music was similar to the boy’s.
“I had some similar issues as a child,” she said recently, choosing to keep the specifics to herself. “Someone gave me a guitar. I don’t even know who it was; a family friend, I think. I was 10.”
Every time Emerson played the strings, it calmed her.
Forty years later, the guitar still has that effect. Whenever she plays, the strumming and plucking of strings clears her mind. She wanted the same for her young client.
Bernstein, who has quietly built a Pay it Forward network that keeps growing in Greater Bangor, often shares Emerson’s story when talking about his initiative. He said it’s the perfect example of Pay it Forward. It’s the reason he and his wife first began donating money to the cause.
The young boy, who was not identified by Acadia for confidentiality reasons, has not smashed the guitar yet. He still plays often and has been taking lessons. He’s still an outpatient at The Acadia Hospital and his behavior is improving, his clinicians said.
It’s too early to tell if the guitar will do for him what it has done for Emerson, who said she remembers the mother wondering why Acadia chose her son, who came to the hospital with “fists flying,” for that act of kindness.
“Why not?” Emerson countered. “It’s not something that’s based on worth or need. We try to find people who might grab onto this concept and run with it. I saw myself in him. I wanted to do this.”
Acadia first brought the Pay it Forward concept into the fold about a year ago through its children’s program. A staff of about 20 clinicians in the programs serves up to 40 area youths with a wide range of emotional and behavioral problems, including depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia.
In the last year, Acadia’s Pay it Forward program has purchased iPods for two teenage girls who were in state custody, a digital camera for an 11-year-old who was living in a homeless shelter with her mother and had no childhood pictures, and clothes for a young girl who was wearing hand-me-downs from her brother.
With each act of kindness, Acadia staff members have issued the challenge to the recipients to pay that kindness forward for someone else, in some way, in the future.
Joe Brochu, the nurse manager for Acadia’s Child and Adolescent Partial Program, said the hospital’s clients don’t always know how they might pay it forward or when. There is a certain level of trust in issuing a pay it forward challenge, but that’s also part of the beauty, he said.
Every so often over the last several weeks, staff members have heard stories that affirm their commitment. Like a story last week about a family that lost all of its possessions in a fire. The thing they wanted most was a kitchen table so they could have family dinners.
This is what Pay it Forward can do, Brochu said.
As an added bonus, Debbie Taplin, a clinician in the child behavioral services program, said the idea of Pay it Forward has created a wonderful sense of camaraderie throughout the hospital. It’s become a welcome part of their routine, another reason to keep doing what they have been doing. The discussion now is about how to keep it going to include more patients.
For Emerson, her time at Acadia Hospital came to a close late last month. She’s no longer keeping an eye on her guitar prodigy. She took a position at the Stetson Ranch, a group home for behaviorally challenged youth.
She plans to take the Pay it Forward concept with her.
Her guitar just might come in handy, too.