April 08, 2002 12:00 PM

In Texas a mother drowns her children. In California a woman is fatally mauled by a neighbor’s dog (see page 198). In Boston and elsewhere the news is full of priests who prey on the young. Yet those events, together with the horror of Sept. 11, are not the whole story. All the time, regular people perform countless acts of altruism. Wanda Johnson (right), a single mother at the end of her rope financially, finds a sack of money—and returns it. Children’s laughter echoes through a small Kansas town because Maisie DeVore spent 30 years redeeming soda cans to build a swimming pool for kids. For these people and the others profiled on the following pages, doing the right thing is its own reward.

Wanda Johnson

Presented with a golden opportunity to solve all her financial woes, a single mother of five takes the high road instead

Driving along Paulsen Street in Savannah last Sept. 3, Wanda Johnson saw an object fly through the air. “It was a white bag,” she says, “and it had come off a white truck.” She pulled over and picked it up. “I knew right away it was money,” she recalls, “because it said so on the bag.”

Indeed, it was a lot of money: $120,000 in small bills. And money was what Johnson needed. “I had just moved,” says Johnson, 35, who earns $7.88 an hour cleaning rooms at Memorial Health University Medical Center, “and I had to clear up the electric bill—it was $300.” A single mother of five kids age 9 to 17, she had just pawned her TV for $60.

Of opening the bag, she says, “I just thought, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ I thought of keeping it, but my conscience started pricking me.”

Johnson drove to the home of Rev. Melvin Price, her pastor at Faith Gospel Temple. “I told her this was a test,” says Price, “that the real blessing from God would come later.” They prayed together, then called the police.

“What she did took a lot of courage,” says Warren Smith, a supervisor at EM Armored Car, which had lost the money, intended for ATMs at SunTrust Banks, when a door on the armored truck flew open. The company gave Johnson a $5,000 reward. SunTrust gave her a check for $2,500 and put another $2,500 into an account for her, inviting further contributions from the public.

“People seem so surprised at what I did,” she says, “but I never really had a choice. The money was never mine.”

Maisie DeVore

She collected cans in Kansas so kids could have a place to swim

Last July 14 was Maisie DeVore Day in her hometown of Eskridge, Kans. The highlight was the dedication of Maisie’s Community Swimming Pool, which only exists because DeVore, 83, spent nearly three decades raising money to build it, chiefly by collecting recyclable soda cans—about 6 million of them over the years—and selling her homemade crab apple jelly. “If you think you can’t do something, you probably can’t,” says DeVore, widowed twice and a great-grandmother nine times over. “But when I think I can one way or another, I get it done.”

In 1973 the only swimming spots in the county were Lake Wabaunsee—which, she says, “had Canada geese swimming all over it”—and a pool in Alma, about 25 miles from Eskridge. DeVore, married to second husband Jim DeVore, a farmer, wanted something better for her children Linda, then 9, and Warren, 7. (Her children from her first marriage were already grown.) Eskridge (pop. 500) didn’t have the budget for a pool, so she vowed to come up with the money, one can at a time. “I remember Maisie was saving cans for the pool when I was a kid,” says City Council member Deann Williams, 38, whose daughter Megan, 11, was a regular at the pool last summer.

As DeVore’s crusade gathered steam, money came in from other sources. Kansas Wildlife and Parks gave her a $73,000 grant in January 2001. Glenn Close, star of Sarah, Plain and Tall, which filmed near Eskridge in the early ’90s, donated $2,000. By early 2001 DeVore had the $200,000 necessary for the project. Construction began in April, and in July the kids of Eskridge had their four-lane pool.

“People used to say to me, ‘Oh, you’ll have too much noise,’ ” says DeVore, whose two-bedroom house sits across the street from the complex. “But it’s not noise. I love seeing kids having a good time.”

John Jackson

A community rallies around a new neighbor whose wife died giving birth to their second child

In October 2000 John Jackson and his pregnant wife, Young, moved from Watertown, N.Y., to Atlanta in search of better schools and warmer days. Instead the couple found tragedy: Five months later, the Korean-born Young died giving birth to an 8-lb. daughter, Sarah. The baby’s size had proved a trauma to her 36-year-old mother’s 5’1″, 90-lb. frame; Young started hemorrhaging and her kidneys shut down. After 16 hours in a coma, “she died,” says Jackson, “in my arms.”

Alone in a new city, Jackson, 38, had to find a place to bury his wife of nine years. He also had to figure out how to care for Sarah and daughter Nicole, 8, and move from a rental apartment into the house the couple had recently purchased in Weatherstone Park, a subdivision outside Atlanta. “The nights were the hardest part. When I was in bed, I would break down,” Jackson says. “I was thinking, ‘How am I going to take care of my kids, pay the bills and manage my own grief?’ ”

Jackson’s Weatherstone Park neighbors had the answer, even though he had never met any of them. Tina Kohn, 45, heard of Jackson’s plight from the subdivision’s builder, and feeling “an overpowering need to do something,” planned a community meeting. “I called three or four people,” Kohn says. “Then they called other people, and it went on from there.”

In the end more than 30 neighbors showed up at Kohn’s home that night, three days after Young was buried. The group divvied up chores—from collecting baby clothes for Sarah to providing hot meals for Jackson to unpacking the family’s moving boxes—and sprang into action. “They dusted, they vacuumed, they washed the dishes,” Jackson says. “And if they didn’t do that, they came by just to talk.”

More than a year later Jackson’s neighbors are still pitching in, inviting him over for dinner and offering to babysit. Carla Lawson, 32, a full-time mother of two, drops off Nicole at the school bus every morning and spends the day caring for Sarah.

Jackson, who works as a senior technician for a medical-device company from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., picks up the girls at the end of his shift. “If I hadn’t received this help, I probably would have had to move back north,” says Jackson. “To this day, if I need anything, people are just a phone call away.”

Kevin Irwin

A stranger saves a couple’s vacation memories

W.L. and Deeda Brown’s trip to Seattle last summer was going great until they realized their $500 Sharp video camera was missing. “I had set it on top of the car at Mount Rainier and forgotten about it,” W.L. says. “We figured it had been run over or picked up by someone.”

It had indeed been picked up—by Kevin Irwin, 42, a former lumberjack, who found the camera on the road near his Packwood, Wash., home, 12 miles from Mount Rainier. Looking for clues to the owner’s identity, Irwin watched the video and recognized the nearby Cowlitz River Lodge, where the Browns had stayed. There, a desk clerk gave him W.L.’s office phone number in Roberta, Ga. Irwin gave him a call.

Bank president W.L., 62, and Deeda, 60, a retired accountant, were so thrilled to get their camera back via United Parcel that they offered Irwin a reward. He declined, but they sent him $50 anyway. “It really tugged at my heartstrings that he would go to that extent for a stranger” says W.L. “Most people would have been happy to have found themselves a nice camera.”

Not Irwin, a divorced father of three who has been disabled since breaking his spine in a 1980 logging accident. “We have a good community here,” he says, “and it’s important to me to be a good reflection and do the right thing.”

Ashley Calcote

She plays Santa Claus to the kids who need him most

Hospitalized in late 2000 for surgery, Ashley Calcote, now 7, became concerned about the other kids in the hospital. “I worried about whether Santa was going to find them,” she says. Assured that he would, Ashley nonetheless decided that for Christmas 2001, she would help kids whose parents couldn’t afford to buy presents. The youngster, who lives in St. Martin, Miss., with dad Mark, 39, a civilian computer programmer at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, mom Teresa, 35, a homemaker, and brother Cade, 12, began using her $2.50-a-week-allowance—along with donations from friends and family to buy dolls, trucks and games. “My mom ordered toys from the Internet,” she says, “and stuff came in day after day.”

On Dec. 15 Ashley distributed her booty—just over 100 toys—to kids at a small county homeless shelter in Waveland, Miss., an hour west of her home, and, she says, “I met every single one of the kids.” Next year she hopes to set up a Web site and collect even more toys. “I want to help kids, that’s all I’m interested in doing,” says Ashley. “This toy thing is going to be a tradition.”

Delvin Johnson

The mailman delivers—and saves a family’s Halloween

Last Halloween Steve and Tami Holsten’s kids wore the costumes their paternal grandmother, Lydia, made for them. Andy, 6, was Robin Hood; Julia, 3, was a princess; and Matthew, 1, was a puppy. Delvin Johnson, their mailman, was an angel, but he didn’t wear a costume.

Their story: Lydia Holsten, 61, thought she had left plenty of time when she mailed the costumes from her home in Excelsior, Minn., a week before Halloween. But in Washington, D.C., where the Holstens live, anthrax had brought chaos to mail delivery. The Friendship Station Post Office, which handles the Holstens’ mail, was shut down on Oct. 30, when traces of the deadly spores were detected.

It looked like the end of a family tradition that went back to Steve Holsten’s boyhood in Minnesota. On Halloween morning, however, there was a knock on the door. It was Delvin Johnson, 44, their mailman for the past five years, carrying the package from Grandma Holsten. “Tami says it was like Superman coming to the door,” says Holsten, 35.

Declared safe, the post office had reopened that morning. Postal workers in gloves and masks reported at 7 a.m., Johnson among them. Tami Holsten, 36, had told him about the package the family was expecting. “I came and said, ‘Well, it’s Halloween; I’m going to check if it came in while we were closed.’ Sure enough, it was in there.” With his supervisor’s permission, Johnson drove a mile and a half to make his special delivery.

It’s seven months until next Halloween—time enough, surely, for Lydia Holsten to run up three mail-carrier uniforms in very small sizes.

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