Earlier this week, I read a continuation of the saga of Billy Ray Harris, the homeless man who returned an expensive engagement ring mistakenly placed in his donation cup. Instead of selling the ring, Harris decided to wait for the owner to come back. When Sarah Darling did, Billy Ray Harris immediately handed the ring over. I remember seeing the original story back in February. On Sunday, Mr. Harris appeared on the Today show, where he was surprised by four of his siblings, who had been looking for him for years. There were hugs and smiles, laughter and tears. Upon being reunited with family, Mr. Harris said, "This is the big payoff. Got it all right here now."
When Sarah Darling put her ring into Billy Ray Harris's cup, she started a ripple in the cosmic continuum that still reverberates. After Mr. Harris's act of integrity, Sarah Darling set up a donation fund, hoping to garner the $4,000 Mr. Harris could have gotten from a jeweler if he'd sold the ring. As of today, the fund for Mr. Harris is up to $186,000, with more than 8,000 people having contributed. This story reminded me of another one not quite a year ago -- the story about Karen Klein, the bus monitor, who was bullied by that group of middle school boys. A fund set up, hoping to get $5,000 to send Karen on a much-needed vacation, ended up bringing in more than $700,000 from more than 30,000 people in 84 countries.
It is heartwarming to know people from all over the globe are willing to respond to these stories. In a digital age, where people spend more time interacting with devices than they sometimes do with other people, the Internet can become a human bridge. I think people were genuinely appalled at the terrible treatment Karen Klein received by those under-age bullies. I think people are now genuinely impressed at how a destitute homeless man can resist temptation and return a ring clearly not meant for him. People see the stories; they want to contribute, and the Internet makes this connection easy.
People wanted to help Karen Klein and Billy Ray Harris, so they gave money. That's where this feel-good story went off track for me, because I remembered another story about a year ago, recounting the fate of many people who come into financial windfalls. This story reported on a study done by Vanderbilt University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Pittsburgh, that followed lottery winners. Five years after winning, the group that won large amounts was more likely to have filed for bankruptcy than those who won smaller amounts. The article said, "the risk of bankruptcy seems to have been directly linked with the size of the prize." Perversely, winning big can create terrible consequences, from downward spirals into addictions, estrangement from family and friends, social ostracism and ending up in debt. The five-year marker appears to apply not only to lottery winners but also to professional athletes. In 2009, Sports Illustrated estimated that within five years of retirement, 60 percent of NBA players were broke. For NFL players, the percentage was even higher -- 78 percent -- and the amount of time shorter: broke within two years of retirement.
You would think getting a big chunk of change would be a plus, but that isn't always the case. For some, getting more money leaves them with less. During her 15 minutes of fame, Karen Klein said she was going to take part of the money and set up a fund to help stop bullying. She's done so, and good for her. She's found a way to multiply her windfall and turn it into benefit for others. I think Billy Ray Harris should take a lesson from Karen Klein. When it comes to money, she may have found a way to beat the odds.
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