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Today's HuffPost Greatest Person: Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess

The Huffington Post    
First Posted: 01/03/11 12:06 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:20 PM ET

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Kindness is contagious. That's what Jenny Lawson, better known to fans and followers as The Bloggess, discovered this holiday season when her simple offer of 20 gift cards to readers who were in need spiraled into a hurricane of good will.

She posted the offer on Dec. 15, 2010:

This year was hard for a lot people and so many people I know are struggling. They're looking for work or for places to live and suddenly the things that you take for granted, like buying Christmas presents for your kids, become a luxury you can't afford. I've had my years of struggling and borrowing and getting the water shut off because you couldn't afford to pay it but this year we've been really lucky. We aren't rich but we're blessed and so much of that is because of you.

The deal: write about your struggles in a comment, and receive a gift card to help out with the holiday season, no questions asked. Within an hour, all the cards were spoken for.

Jenny was heartbroken by the stream of commenters who she would not be able to help. But then, just as she updated with the bad news, a reader on the site stepped up to offer help. And then another. And another.

By the 20th, over 900 gift cards were sent out by 689 people. Over 450 people who needed help this holiday season received donations to assist them buy gifts for their kids, medicine for illnesses, help paying rent, or any number of other things. Over $40,000 ended up sent out, all initiated by a simple, single post.

One commenter wrote:

I didn't want to ask for anything in the original post, because I know there are people in much worse shape than me. I know, because I read their stories and cried. But I was also crying because I know how they feel. I wanted to get my four-year-old just two presents this year, and now I'm not sure I can even afford them. So, as much as it pains me to type this, if there is just a small gift card out there for me, I would really appreciate the help, and will be certainly paying it forward during the next year in any way I can.

Thank you Jenny, for reminding me that there is hope for the world my kid is growing up in. Thank you a trillion times.

This story was one of hundreds by those afflicted by economic hardship this holiday season. Many others told stories of their own hardships, and then, reached out to help:

To be completely honest, I was about to comment to ask for help. My sister is in a dire financial crisis, and my parents have been struggling to keep her from going under. Meanwhile, I am silently dealing with my own crisis, but I never mentioned it to my family because I want them to have at least a little peace of mind. And for the first time ever, we are not exchanging Christmas gifts with one another. I hate to sound like a sad panda, but I used to get so excited about the holidays, and I've lost that. I bought my very first Christmas tree this year, but I haven't even bothered to put it up because it would only mock me with its cheeriness.

Yes, I would appreciate a boost, but I realize that no matter what my situation is, there are many out there who are worse off than me. So I would like to contribute $30 to someone. Just because I'm not feeling the magic of the season doesn't mean I can't help someone else get it back.

Thank you for taking care of this and providing a simple way for us to help one another.

The entire comment board was suffused with this urgent desire to give back, in any way possible.

"A lot of people who either asked for help and were given help and came back and said 'I want to be able to give something -- like, I design jewelry and is there someone out there who would need it?'" Lawson said. "This helped me keep going and not get jaded."

Sometimes, she'd set people up with multiple donors, depending on need.

"The person when they got contacted by the third or fourth person, would say, 'I so appreciate it but there are so may others who need help.' So many people did that," she said. "Being in that much need and saying 'No, I've been helped enough -- these are really good, trustworthy people."

Other readers went far and beyond the original request for help. One reader in Australia donated $1,000 to help others. Another gave away an iPad she had received, because she knew it would make a bigger difference somewhere else.

"I don't need an iPad," said Becky of Steammeupkid. "So I emailed her saying, 'I know this is silly, your readers need cash to pay their mortgage, to buy gifts for their kid...And I know maybe there's someone you've come into contact with that might need it."

Jenny connected her with a 13-year-old girl whose mother uses a wheelchair and needed a laptop.

"She said she'd never been so excited for Christmas since she was a little girl and couldn't wait to see her mom's face," Becky said. "Her mom opened it and was crying all Christmas morning."

Jenny calls the event "an accidental miracle." And though it was the benevolence of hundreds that fueled this extraordinary exchange, Jenny herself put in five sleepless days matching givers to receivers, so that everyone who wanted to help, and everyone who needed help, could reach each other.

The story is a testament not only to the limitless human capacity to give back, but also to the specific power of the online community. Though the vast majority of the readers on Jenny's site do not know each other in real life, their feeling of connectedness to each other, fostered by their web interactions, played a huge role in the giving ecosystem that emerged from the original post.

"The Red Cross is great, but kind of faceless. With this you were set up with one particular person, you knew the story, you knew how you were going to help," she said. "So many of us aren't necessarily active in our own communities but I know so much about people online. This gave people a way to really get physically in touch with people who were part of this online community."

The Australian donor, who asked not to be identified, agreed with the idea of this kind of community.

"To read the latest post and not read the comments is like going to a social function and only talking to one person," he said. "In a sense it is a community of sorts. None of us know each other in person but that doesn't stop us from becoming a valued part of each others lives."

When he first read Jenny's initial post, he was struck by how much he felt a part of this group of people.

"Her community was suffering more than she realized and I think that this came as a shock," he said. "My heart sank when I read her first update."

As to why a self-described "complete stranger from Australia" would donate so much, his answer was simple.

"Truth is that all I could see was that my friend needed help and that I was in a position to make that offer," he said. "Even now I cant find the words that aptly describe this feeling that I have been left with. I think it's joy or faith or maybe even connectedness. I'm not really sure."

As grateful as those who received help were, just as gratified were those who gave.

"A lot of the people who were donating said, the best Christmas present was to be able to give to others," Jenny said. "It made Christmas special again."

One commenter wrote as much:

I'm one of the people who got helped, and seriously -- this has made my entire year. This is the first time I've felt anything like holiday cheer since I was a kid myself. You and your readers made it possible for my son to wake up to presents from Mom on Christmas morning, and I cannot thank you enough. I don't know how to express the way it feels to have the holiday dread I've been carrying around since Thanksgiving just... drop off, and change to anticipation. Y'all are amazing.

Jenny is ever-humble about the entire thing.

"Being able to read a story of wrapping empty boxes because the baby won't notice and being able to say, 'We've got you covered,' and set them up and know that person is going to have a great Christmas was incredible," she said. "I think more than anything I felt really lucky that I was able to find myself in that situation. It's not very often that people let you play Santa Claus."


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Who are the people in your community who are responding to the economic crisis with creativity, generosity, and passion?
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Whether it's you or someone you know, click the “Participate” button and tell us your stories.

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