SCHENECTADY — Christina Lennon and Cathy Berger were walking down Jay Street in search of coffee Thursday when Jeff Buell stopped them and asked, “Can I borrow you for a minute?”
Lennon, apparently caught off guard by Buell, his videographer, a Daily Gazette photographer and a reporter, said, “Maybe.”
It was the Norwich woman’s first visit to Schenectady — she and Berger were here for a conference of 80 nonprofit housing agencies at the DoubleTree Schenectady — and her first impression was stronger than coffee.
Buell, after asking about their work to help Mohawk Valley residents avoid foreclosure and buy their first homes and promising to buy them coffee, told them about his new project, Do The Next Good Thing.
Over the next year, Buell — a Capital Region developer who is renovating the historic Foster Building on State Street in downtown Schenectady — will randomly donate $50,000 of his own money, $100 at a time, in hopes of encouraging similarly random acts of kindness. The next good thing doesn’t have to involve money, he said. It could be as simple as giving a stranger a hug or saying hello.
“If you inject a little kindness into a perfect stranger’s world who you’ve never met before, then they will be motivated to then do the same thing,” he explained to Lennon and Berger.
Then he took out two $100 bills and said they were theirs.
“This is weird — you don’t have to do that,” said Lennon, laughing as Buell offered up two crisp bills.
“It’s weird?” Buell replied. “You’re the first person to say it’s weird.”
Lennon said she’d rather see the money go to someone “who actually does need it.” Buell said she could give it to that someone.
“This is fun — this hasn’t happened yet,” Buell said as they walked toward the pedestrian walkway’s intersection with State Street. “There is no shortage of people to give it to. That’s the most amazing thing.”
“City of Schenectady,” he said to Lennon. “You weren’t expecting this, were you?
“I was not,” Lennon said.
In front of Johnny’s, the group stopped Candice Holmes, the vice president of development for the Mallozzi Group who was on her way into work, and offered her $200.
“Happy Schenectady,” Lennon said. “We’re passing kindness onto a stranger.”
“Are you serious?” Holmes asked. “Oh my god! What is this for?”
“It’s for Do The Next Good Thing — it’s a project,” said Jack Carpenter, of Two Buttons Deep Media in Troy, who was filming the exchange.
Holmes didn’t want the money either. Even after Buell insisted she keep it for herself, she decided to donate the cash to the victims of Hurricane Harvey in East Texas, Irma in the Florida Keys and Maria in Puerto Rico.
Her employer, Mallozzi, partnered with Proctors, Mazzone, Rivers Casino and other downtown businesses Wednesday to host a fundraiser on State Street, serving up food and entertainment. Donations can still be made online at the event’s Fundabilities page.
“That’s a wonderful use for it — much better than anything I would have ever done with that money,” Lennon said.
Buell then brought Lennon and Berger to The Happy Cappuccino on Jay Street for the coffee he had promised.
“I'm so blown away,” Holmes said after the cameras were gone. “I think that's amazing. There's gotta be more people out there like them.”
Buell, 38, is president and CEO of Sequence Development. He said he thought of the idea for the project after seeing two women slouching against a building at 500 State St., down the road from the Foster Building, in June. It was the Sunday before Slidin’ Dirty opened at the old Hotel Foster on June 29, and the two women said they had come up from North Carolina the day before.
“We thought we had a job,” he recalled one of the women, who had a cut under her eye, saying. “It wasn’t what we thought it was.”
They needed to get to Boston where they could stay with family, he said, so he handed them $200 from his wallet to cover the bus fare.
“As I was walking away — this is where the important part is — I thought, that could be a scam, right? I might’ve just gotten scammed. And I hated that that was in my heart,” he said.
His momentary skepticism was interrupted by a man Buell described as bigger than him, who came out of nowhere and said he wanted to pray over him.
“I want your child to follow his heart,” Buell remembered him saying. “Something to the effect of don’t let him doubt what he’s doing. … It just kind of stayed with me.”
Buell, a self-proclaimed “Facebook preacher” who uses social media to encourage people to be “kind and good,” said people have reacted positively to him putting his money where his mouth is. He’ll post a picture of the unsuspecting recipient of his $100 donation first, then follow up with a video produced by Two Buttons Deep Media.
His Facebook post announcing the project on Tuesday was shared 180 times by Thursday, and the Do The Next Good Thing page is up to over 800 likes. He gave the first 100 page followers $100 and encouraged them to pass it on to a stranger.
A video of a Department of Publics Works employee named John getting a donation in the city of Troy on Wednesday has more than 3,000 views. The ecstatic recipient said he would be giving the money to his brother on his wedding day in two weeks before running across the street and handing a curious toddler $10.
Buell said Tuesday would have been the 37th birthday of his late sister, Laurie Bereza. He said that before she died at 35 after being sick for 10 years, she put together a 100-item bucket list. The last five items were highlighted with check marks: “Be a good friend, smile every day, forget about petty details, be happy, love and cherish life.”
“I miss her like crazy, and I think she would love this,” he said.