Years back, I was listening to an audiobook of Tony Robbins’ “Money: Master the Game” during the five-hour drive to Philadelphia, where I would meet with our window manufacturer. Incredible speaker and writer that Mr. Robbins is, I found his seven steps to financial freedom deeply compelling, especially number seven, “The secret to living is giving.” Essentially, he stresses that just writing a check to a charity isn’t doing the most good. Instead, he argues, you should immerse yourself in one, working on the ground level and truly connecting with the people you serve. This in mind, I found myself exploring the streets of Philly before the meeting, reminiscing about days when my friends and I would head to the city, seeing live bands like Simple Minds and the Pretenders. I withdrew $100 cash from the ATM, thinking I could either divide the money between the homeless people scattered around most street corners, or hand the entire stack over to a single, deserving individual.
But as I walked around, I was struck by Tony Robbins’ words, and decided to step completely outside my comfort zone. I approached a gentleman who wasn’t panhandling, no cardboard sign or metal cup. He was sitting by himself at a picnic table, and I asked for directions to the Liberty Bell, pretending to be a lost tourist. After he pointed it out — right across the street — I thanked him and asked how he was doing. “Not so good,” he told me. He’d been living on the streets since 2001. I learned his name, Jake, and discovered that, to my surprise, he didn’t know how old he was. It had been years since he celebrated his birthday and he’d stopped keeping track. I sat down at the table and talked to him for over an hour. After learning of his struggles to find work and offering him some employment advice, I asked whether he’d meet me at the same spot if I returned next weekend.
Lo and behold, when I returned to Philly the next week, he was there. I took him to Subway where we ate and talked. Over the next few months, Jake and I became close friends, meeting almost every week at Subway. Eventually, we upgraded to the Midtown Diner, where our server, Regina, would save a space for us in the back. I progressively coordinated my efforts with an organization in the area called Project Home and encouraged Jake to find a job, steadily curbing my financial assistance to him (which wasn’t much to begin with). But I eventually realized, that despite all my efforts, I couldn’t cure the mental illness that kept him out of ordinary society. What I could do was continue to be his friend, meeting with him as often as possible. Over the next couple years, we’d meet intermittently, sometimes losing touch due to some event in my life, and then, inevitably, I’d find him once again.
This spurred me to get more involved with the Sunday Love Project, the brainchild of Margaux Murphy, serving quality food to people struggling daily on the streets of Philadelphia. The Christmas season has me thinking of Jake and the thousands of people in similar difficult circumstances out there in Philly. I tell his story a lot — there’s even a website, thejakestory.com — and people are often skeptical, thinking that my involvement with the homeless must have some ulterior motive. I tell these people that I don’t consider myself any kind of Mother Teresa; I’ll often see a band when I’m there in Philly and take advantage of the big city. The truth is, I just enjoy meeting people who are less fortunate, learning their stories, and helping them in some small way. It’s a labor of love that gives my life meaning. Jake isn’t just some token homeless person for an abstract cause. He’s my friend. Though I haven’t seen him since July, when I introduced him to my daughter and explored the city together like old times, I’m still banking on him showing up at Sunday Love one weekend. With any luck, I’ll see him just before Christmas, when we head down on Dec. 22, ready to eat meatloaf at the Midtown Diner just like before.