At first, she was startled. The man had appeared suddenly and obviously hadn't showered in a while. Further, my wife -- all five-foot-nothing of her -- was alone.
But the man looked gaunt and seemed harmless. So Laura, who spent more than a decade working in the nonprofit sector, decided to help. She knew a quarter wouldn't buy very much and asked the gentleman how much money he really needed and for what.
The man hesitated, surely wondering if Laura planned to castigate him about his appearance or the fact that he was begging for spare change. He then sheepishly explained that he had no money and needed bus fare so he could get downtown. Without hesitation, Laura pulled out $1.50 and with a smile gave it to him.
That evening, she told me the story as an afterthought. When I pressed for details, she explained that the gentleman was so grateful that he smiled from ear to ear and thanked her several times. Then, she recalled, he suddenly carried himself with much more authority than he had arrived with and rushed off to the bus stop -- about 100 yards from the gas station -- to climb aboard the bus that had just pulled up.
Like many households, mine isn't currently in the most desirable financial shape. We racked up a lot of consumer debt during the go-go late '90s and early 2000, and when the economy tanked, we watched our investments -- and financial security -- shrink with it.
But our bank balance was the last thing on Laura's mind when she reached into her purse and handed the gentleman bus fare. And although the amount of money was paltry in the big scheme of things, the result would have been the same had the gentleman said he needed $5 or $10 for a hot meal.
I read a report recently that said corporations are giving less this year because of the shaky economy. Philanthropy from corporate leaders and other business executives is down even more.
It's easy to be philanthropic when times are good, your stock portfolio is through the roof, business is booming and cash flow isn't an issue. But it's when times aren't so good that the importance of philanthropy and volunteerism is at its greatest.
People in need don't suddenly disappear when your bankbook isn't as fat as it used to be. And people in need don't suddenly find themselves warm and less hungry while you're strategizing about how to keep profits from decreasing.
So this winter, when you're thinking about all those things you'll be cutting back on to maintain the status quo and keep your company alive, don't forget there are always those who are always less fortunate -- whether times are good, bad or somewhere in between.
And remember, it doesn't take much to make a difference.
Dustin Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of SBN Magazine.