As a journalist, I try to remain detached from the people I interview. But thanks to the example of a USF student I profiled, I found myself recently helping change a flat tire for an elderly woman I had never met before.
The story begins on Nov. 22, when biomedical sciences honors student Vaneesha Patel celebrated her 22nd birthday. Instead of asking for gifts for herself, she decided to give gifts to others through "random acts of kindness" - 22 of them to be precise.
Patel says she was inspired by Syed Muzamil Hasan Zaidi, a Pakistani man who celebrated his 22nd birthday last year by doing something similar, as well as Robyn Bomar, who created the good deed effort known as "The Birthday Project" a few years ago.
"I’ve never really had much to ask for for my birthday or anything like that, cause I have what I need," Patel told me. "I’m healthy, I have a family, I have clothing and food, and after volunteering at different places I realized I’m a lot more blessed than other people are, so it wasn’t that difficult for me to choose to do this over something else.”
Patel, who hopes to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist, volunteers at Florida Hospital Tampa and Project Downtown, a USF student-run organization that feeds homeless people in Tampa every Friday.
She said it took about a month to put together her list of 22 things, adding she had to be realistic about what she actually could do.
“A lot of things I found are really money-related, so being a college student, that was a bit difficult," she said with a laugh. "So (I'm) trying to find things that meant a lot to me and were feasible to do as well.”
The list (see below) contained a number of easy tasks: leaving change on a vending machine and at a campus laundromat, feeding the ducks at a USF pond, and putting "have a nice day" notes with a flower on random car windshields.
However, some jobs were more challenging and time-consuming: making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the Good Samaritan Inn and creating handmade cards for the patients in the Florida Hospital Tampa pediatric unit. In total, Patel said it took her almost a full day spread out over a two day period to complete all 22 random acts.
I met up with Patel on the afternoon of her birthday at a Temple Terrace fire station. She was there to drop off lunch she had made for about 20 firefighters - spinach fruit salad, garlic bread, and pasta primavera. She said she picked firefighters because of the service they provide to the community.
“They don’t know if they’re going to come out of a fire alive or in good health or anything like that, and to pick that as your career I think is just really selfless and, putting all things aside, what better people to do this for?” Patel said.
Assistant Fire Chief Ian Kemp has seen examples of appreciation from the community before, but nothing on this scale.
“No, no, this is a first. We obviously have people bring things by the station and cards and thank you’s, but this is a little different, it’s a nice feeling,” he said. “Us and the police officers throughout this county do our job every day and we don’t look for recognition...and to be recognized by someone of her age for a random act, it’s incredible, it’s inspiring, and it gives you chills down your back, it really does.”
As for Patel, she said the feeling she got by doing nice things for strangers was a wonderful birthday gift itself.
"People feel good, it’s just a real blessed feeling to know that your small gesture, even just a smiley face note or leaving some change on a coin machine can really make somebody’s day—you don’t know what people have been through, you don’t know what their day is like that day, and honestly, the smallest thing can make a world of difference.”
And while Patel said her example has inspired her friends to consider doing something similar on their birthdays, it did sink in quickly for one cynical journalist, who the very next day after meeting Patel, happily changed the tire of a stranger who just needed a hand.
Vaneesha Patel's 22 Random Acts of Kindness
- Give water and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Good Samaritan Inn.
- Buy the next person in line at Starbucks a cup of coffee.
- Leave change on a vending machine.
- Feed the ducks on USF’s campus.
- Give candy to random people.
- Send thank you notes to her most inspirational teachers.
- Leave a flower and a “have a nice day” note with smiley faces on random vehicles.
- Send flowers to her parents.
- Surprise a friend with the same birthday with balloons.
- Give handmade cards to patients in the Florida Hospital Tampa pediatric unit.
- Leave a thank you note to the restaurant server at her birthday dinner.
- Give flowers to a random stranger, who ended up being a Salvation Army bell ringer.
- Share her birthday cake with her neighbors.
- Make lunch for Temple Terrace firefighters.
- Put up “take what you” need flyers offering happiness, joy, patience and love.
- Hide a smiley face note in a friend’s belongings.
- Leave change in a college laundry room.
- Donate to the Philippine Typhoon Relief fund.
- Buy dessert for a random family at her birthday dinner.
- Pick up trash.
- Donate to the Salvation Army.
- Give 2 roses to another random person in memory of her grandpa and aunt.