Thursdays find me on the Main Grounds of the University of Virginia for a class in the History Department. I usually arrive to the area early so I can grab lunch before heading to class. My routine is to head to the Corner, Charlottesville’s row of shops and restaurants like those found adjacent to most university campuses that are what make a college town.

Today I walked towards the end of the Corner, which involves going downhill and under a railroad bridge. Usually, right under the bridge, to the left, and just before a crosswalk,  is a homeless person asking for help. It’s always a different person. But there’s always someone there. Admittedly, I’m uncomfortable when people ask for some change or a dollar because they’re down and out on their luck, but then always feel a pang of guilt for not stopping and helping out.

Just as I expected, there was someone sitting on the dirty ground, right next to where I would have to wait for the signal to change to “walk” so I could finish my journey to lunch. But it was a younger looking woman. And I saw her writing something down on her cardboard sign, which I assumed said “Hungry. Help me.” or something along those lines. But her tallying of marks intrigued me. So I read the sign. It said “Donate a smile.”

What a surprise. I couldn’t help but smile. We made eye contact. She smiled back, and added a tally to her count, and I crossed the street, a smile still on my face.

Apparently, she was conducting an experiment to see if people were at least willing to give something as cheap as a smile. As I ate lunch, I realized I wanted to know more about what she was doing, but when I returned to her post, she was gone. Oh well.

Even without learning what the purpose of her study was, the experience taught me a small lesson. No matter how busy, how ragged, how tired, or how broke we are, there is something we can always afford to donate: a smile. Smiling at her, and seeing her response in return, made me happy. It reminded me that when we take the time to give (even if it’s just a smile) others, in return we are blessed too.

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