A better world, one intentional act of kindness at a time

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David Friedman offers surprise flowers to nurse Nancy Haas, a stranger, at the Mount Laurel Wegmans. He blogs about his daily pursuit. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)

It was just a routine grocery trip for Nancy Haas of Marlton, but as she left the Mount Laurel Wegmans, a stiff wind prompted a quickened pace to her car - where a man stepped forward, a bouquet of flowers in his hand.

Haas was startled. And a bit wary. This is, after all, 2012, when danger lurks even in suburban parking lots, and strangers bearing flowers can be, well, creepy.

But David Friedman calmly explained that he wanted only to brighten her day - and that he would be happy if she could accept the flowers.

"I admit it - I certainly was suspicious at first. I thought this was surely some kind of gimmick," said Haas, a registered nurse at Virtua Memorial in Mount Holly. She had tears in her eyes. "Nobody's ever done anything like this before for me. I did get an orchid at Christmas, but that was about the last time I had any flowers in the house."

So why was Friedman, the former president of an employee benefits company, handing out bouquets and carrying a card that reads "Intentional Acts of Kindness"?

Therein lies a tale.

That career of his? He never really liked it.

Despite his success at RSI, the Mount Laurel company he and his father founded in 1983, Friedman (no relation to this writer) wasn't happy in his work.

The former philosophy major at the College of William and Mary enjoyed some aspects, especially customer service, "but for years I longed to work in something about which I could feel passionate."

Still, he stuck with it as the company grew from its humble beginnings in the family's basement to one with 110 employees.

In 2008, when the company was sold, Friedman stayed on as area president.

"But I realized that if I didn't take the bold step of kicking myself out into an uncertain future, no one else was going to. I wanted to write an entirely new chapter in the book of my life, and I was fortunate enough to have the economic security to do it."

At the same time, his son and daughter were both out of the house and in college. " â ¦ It meant the end of a 20-year stage of parenting with children at home." And while that was bittersweet, it also marked an important completion and transition point.

So in July 2010, Friedman retired at 48.

First on his to-do list? Write a book. Disciplined and dogged, he wanted to get down in writing the values that have guided him in the business world. He wrote Fundamentally Different in a matter of months.

And as 2012 was dawning, Friedman made a firm promise to himself: Every day of the year, he would purposefully, not randomly, perform an act of kindness. It was an anthem from the author Leo Buscaglia: "Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring." Every night, he would blog about the day's experience (intentionalactsofkindness.blogspot.com).

A marathon runner for decades, this is a man who understands commitment.

In his Moorestown kitchen on a recent afternoon, Friedman was packaging the from-scratch chocolate chip cookies he'd just taken out of the oven. He had decided that the local police station was probably a good place to deliver some cheer - and chocolate chip cookies have a way of doing that. "These are people who work for my town, and who probably don't get very many people stopping by to express their thanks," he explained.

In the waiting area at the station, a receptionist behind a glass window studied Friedman and his plate. He had politely introduced himself and announced his mission.

A few minutes later, a bemused Sgt. Randy Pugh stepped into the waiting area. "Did you call ahead and know I'd be here?" asked Pugh, a chocolate chip cookie fanatic. But he was still waiting, perhaps, for the zinger, whatever it might be. Friedman explained that the cookies were just a way of saying thank you.

Pugh is every inch the brawny police officer. But he also was clearly touched as he reached to shake Friedman's hand.

"Sometimes we do get cookies around Christmastime. But this is different. This is terrific, and it's really going to please the guys."

And it did. Back in the station kitchen, five happy police officers were nibbling on cookies.

The next day, Friedman was at the door of a home in nearby Cinnaminson delivering dinner for a newly motherless family. He'd read about her tragic death a few weeks before, and had signed on, via an Internet help site, to prepare a dinner for six.

He didn't know the family. But he knew they might really enjoy a good hot meal.

The woman's husband answered the door, and once it was explained who Friedman was, his expression showed gratitude. While neighbors and friends had predictably pitched in, having a stranger go to the trouble of preparing and delivering a meal was unexpected. His handshake with Friedman was part hug.

"It was moving to me that he was so moved," Friedman recalls. "The fact that I was a stranger wanting to help out, without any other connection, really seemed to matter."

Friedman has driven a cancer patient to treatment, cleaned up a community playground, corresponded with a soldier in Afghanistan, handed out gift cards on the street, given hot chocolate to school crossing guards, delivered necessities for teen mothers and their babies, and started conversations with obviously lonely people.

There are challenges to keeping a strict schedule. "This isn't always easy or convenient - sometimes it's even a pain in the neck. Sometimes, I want to take a day off and not be thinking about others, especially when I have my own issues going on," says Friedman, who doesn't take any breaks for holidays.

Also, this is a man who describes himself as "basically an introvert," so some of his acts also test his courage. On one of his first missions, he had decided to face down his discomfort about nursing homes. With a bouquet of flowers, he told the person at the front desk that he wanted to give them to someone lonely, someone who doesn't get many visitors. "But even as I did, I was thinking 'This is going to be hardâ ¦ '?"

Then he found himself facing an elderly stranger, and trying to find a way to connect with her. "So I thought to myself, 'What's the worst that can happen?', and that helped. So we talked about where she grew up, about her family - small talk, mostly, just to get her engaged."

These interactions have had an effect on him. "I think I'm more accepting, less judgmental, happier, and more easygoing and relaxed. This I know - practicing intentional kindness is an amazing way to connect with the world."

His future is still a work in progress, and he's taking time making decisions. But his next job will have social purpose and direct impact. "I'd rather teach an adult to read than raise money for cancer research â ¦ ."

His hope: "I'd like to build another organization, but one whose primary focus is community service. I'd love the process of putting together a team to do that with me."


Kindness Rules, ?David Friedman-Style

1. I must do at least one intentional act of kindness each day, beginning Jan. 1, 2012, and ending Dec. 31, 2012.

2. The act of kindness should be something that forces me to step outside my normal patterns of behavior.

3. Though some acts may have a financial component, the majority should not. When a financial component does exist, it should be more than simply making a donation.

4. Acts need not be large or "significant."

5. While the majority of my acts of kindness will be directed outside my immediate circle of friends and family, acts within this circle still count.