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by Vickie Elmer, AARP Bulletin, December 9, 2009
ATHENS, Ohio—Bob Votruba’s Boston terrier, Bogart, jumps up on students hurrying by with coffee and books at the entrance of Ohio University’s campus. One young woman looks impatiently ahead; another stops and glances at the big, pale-blue bus painted with sayings and slogans promoting hugs, kindness and generosity.
Votruba, 54, smiles and hands out a blue circular sticker that reads “One Million Acts of Kindness.”
“This could be the coolest goal of your lifetime,” he tells a young woman. “It will probably take 50 years or so.”
A slender man with a quiet smile and an upbeat outlook, the Cleveland native is crisscrossing the country in his bus on a 10-year mission to encourage, inspire and remind people to be kind every day—even every hour. Last August he started visiting college campuses to reach students, who he says are the most receptive to his ideas.
“I didn’t go to college. So now I’m going to all of them,” he says, with plans to visit about 100 campuses a year.
Throughout the day students and other passersby take a minute to pat Bogart and listen to Votruba talk about kindness and its importance in today’s world. After they leave, he gulps a little more coffee and starts his spiel again to others who stop by. Some agree to take extra stickers. A few already know about him from Facebook, Twitter or the One Million Acts of Kindness website. He’s also on YouTube.
When Votruba first started talking about the effort, friends tried to persuade him to lower his goal to 100,000. But it didn’t have the same ring as a million.
Reaching 1 million kindnesses over a lifetime requires 50 acts of kindness a day for 55 years, performing good deeds such as picking up trash, holding open a door or giving a hungry man a sandwich. “It’s a big, big number and totally obtainable, with kindness in the heart,” Votruba says.
But he knows he must pick up the pace to meet his own million mark. “I’ve got to do like 500 [acts] a day,” Votruba says with a laugh, noting he finds it difficult to connect with a charity while on the road and juggling a blog, campus visits and speeches.
Votruba’s promotion of goodness started more than seven years ago, when, after the Sept. 11 tragedy, he created a Sow Only Seeds of Love sticker and website. That part-time pursuit grew into the kindness campaign after two suicides among his acquaintances and the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. He attended the campus memorial service and started thinking about how as a father of three children in college his job “is to make this the safest place that I can.… Kindness is the only thing that’s going to break that mess out there,” he says.
Votruba, who grew up in a big Catholic family with eight sisters, learned early about kindness by watching his mother perform good deeds, such as sewing for neighbors and helping with clothing drives. After high school, he became a carpenter’s apprentice and then a cabinetmaker. He started a custom cabinetry business and later expanded into homebuilding, a handsome living that provided luxuries such as family ski vacations and a 10,000-square-foot home.
“I never had a care in the world,” he says. “I’ve been spoiled all my life.”
Friends know Votruba, who is now divorced, as a good father and a successful businessman—as comfortable talking with the homeless as with a CEO. “He’s one of the most considerate and giving and warm people,” says Warren Morris, a friend for 20 years.
Yet selling his home, getting rid of possessions and moving into a bus—with bed but no microwave or bathroom—struck some in his circle as “way-out-there thinking. Some people think he’s gone off the deep end,” Morris says.
But others see it a little differently. “It’s a cool idea,” says recent OU grad Tyler Wallace, 21, of Cincinnati. However, “the cynic in me wonders how many people will follow through on it.”
After only a few months on the road, Votruba already has many fond memories—meeting two older adults who are changing retirement plans to help others, the students who made him a lasagna dinner, the professor who invited him to stay at his home for a few nights.
The grassroots effort is financed and run by Votruba. He thinks it’s gaining momentum and hopes to see it become a nonprofit organization and develop into a Kindness 101 curriculum for elementary schools. He dreams of adding more kindness buses to spread his message around the country.
For now though, Votruba is happy reaching people in small groups, which on a good day can add up to 300 or 400 students. He knows only a few will embrace the million acts of kindness immediately but hopes more will get the spirit at other times of their lives.
Votruba challenges older Americans to skip a golf game or play less bridge to make time for kindness and volunteering. “Find the passion that’s always been there and embrace it,” he says, and be a kindness role model to your children and grandchildren.
“I would like to see another Mother Teresa in the world because of this,” Votruba says. “I want thousands of Mother Teresas. The world needs people to go out and care for one another.”
Vickie Elmer is a writer in Michigan.
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