12/12/2012 10:15 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

Integrity Trumps Homelessness

Two years ago, David Tally was a homeless man wandering around Tempe, Ariz., sleeping on a mat in a shelter. With no job and no destination in his life, he roamed the streets where, on a day in November, his life took on the lineaments of a fairy tale. He saw an unattended backpack at a light-rail station, with no owner in sight. So he bent down and flipped it open and saw stacks of cash adding up to $3,300.

For him, it was a jackpot. Thoughts raced through his mind: a cheap apartment, a bicycle, new clothing, dozens of restaurant meals. Yet, in that moment, despite all of this, he chose not to keep the money. Later, he told a reporter for The Arizona Republic, "It didn't feel right. I just couldn't do it." He figured it belonged to a commuting college student. So, still a bit undecided, he slung it over his shoulder and walked to the Tempe Community Action Agency, where he'd been working as a night monitor.

Tally was in a recovery program for drugs and alcohol. He'd lost his driver's license, as a result of a DUI, then lost his job, as his life slowly came apart. Part of the temptation he faced when he discovered the bag of money was that it would have enabled him to pay off debts, as well as fines he'd incurred before his sobriety.

Wrestling with his choices, he went to a man he trusted, Sam Sumner, his mentor at I-HELP, the organization he'd relied on to get back on track. Sumner didn't tell him what to do; he said it was Tally's choice. After contemplating all his options, he realized he couldn't take money from someone who, for all he knew, might have needed it even more than he did.

Nothing in the pack identified its owner, but Tally found a thumb drive that enabled him to track down the owner: Bryan Belanger. Tally had been right. Belanger was a student who had forgotten the bag while talking on his cell phone -- and he badly needed the money. He'd assembled the cash to buy a used car to replace one he'd wrecked in a recent accident. When he handed over the money to Belanger, the young man's gratitude opened up Tally's sense of his own self-worth. His act of honesty inspired so much praise for his selflessness that he began to realize how much he was capable of doing in the future.

Then the fairy tale really kicked into gear. People heard about his honesty and integrity and the attention exploded. From around the world, people sought him out, offering to help him get off the streets. The story in The Arizona Republic went viral. People magazine wrote him up. Diane Sawyer featured him on ABC. CNN interviewed him. He's become a hero. Maxwell House coffee actually cast him in a 30-second commercial as part of a marketing campaign built around the idea of optimism.

Donations began to arrive from around the world and the sum rose into five figures. By returning the backpack, Tally discovered he didn't need the money at all. An attorney helped straighten out his legal record for free. A dentist donated work on his teeth. A lawyer volunteered to help him fix his legal record so he could get his driver's license back. After six months, his life was back in order and he was able to make amends for past violations by paying restitution and doing community service.

Tally did the right thing, stuck to his goals for recovery, kept seeing his caseworker -- and he emerged a new man. Eventually, he moved into a modest apartment, near a church where he'd slept when he was homeless. He took an internship as a manager of a community garden, and he helps with a program that allows the homeless the chance to volunteer in the garden. He shows them, through his actions and his words, what's possible, if they stick to it. As he told The Arizona Republic, "I'm blessed."

"My bills, they get priority. Nothing else gets done until they get paid," he said. "It's a great feeling to be able to put back into society after being a person who was dependent on society for so long."

As Brian Belanger, the student who owned the backpack told ABC, reflecting on Tally's integrity: "It's just the greatest thing I've ever experienced, I think. It really is a lesson to keep your faith in people, and character exists no matter what your circumstances are."

Do you have stories of people, like Tally, who have turned their lives around by doing something good that might not at first seem to be in their own interest? What's interesting to me is how Tally simply did the right thing, not calculating how he would benefit from it, not even imagining that it would benefit him, and then everything good in his life followed from that. Has this happened to you or someone you know?

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.