Sometimes, the power of the newspaper amazes me.
I’m not referring to reaching tens of thousands of readers who get their North Okaloosa news from our print and digital platforms. Rather, I'm thinking of how stories evolve after they hit the press or go live on crestviewbulletin.com.
When readers take the story and turn it into something unexpected: hopefully, something great.
A series of events these past two weeks led to such an example.
On Jan. 31, Crestview resident Deborah Reynolds-Nash visited our office and told me she tried to pay $223 of her power bill in unwrapped pennies. She could have paid in rolled coins or even dollars, but she wanted to pay this way, since she used her fireplace liberally and disagreed with the bill.
The widowed mother of four travels to Pensacola, Birmingham and North Carolina to see doctors in connection with her bone marrow transplant — travel costs that add to an already strained household budget slashed in half by the mortgage and homeowners insurance.
It’s a familiar tale that many other North Okaloosa residents and countless others are living.
Reynolds' story appeared in the Feb. 5 edition, and our 6,000 Facebook fans shared it enough so that it reached three times our usual social media audience. It sparked a debate: Was Reynolds’ action a civil protest, a way to grab corporate America’s attention, or was it unjustifiable, placing an undue burden on the cashier who doesn’t set utility rates?
Readers gave their two cents.
Of course, some didn’t read the companion commentary, the story behind the story, which stated this was not a Gulf Power-did-something-wrong story. After all, no federal statute requires a business to accept so much loose change, according to the Federal Reserve’s website.
And some didn’t read the story; they just browsed the Facebook post and asked others to fill in the blanks. We received questions that said, “Did the power company accept the money?” I politely replied, with a pasted-in link, that they’d have to read the story to find out. (It's a newspaper, folks. Let's not let smart phones and other distractions chip away our reading and comprehension skills.)
But a few readers saw the story as a charitable opportunity.
A Fort Walton Beach man emailed me links to the State of Florida's Unclaimed Property website and results from searching Reynolds' name.
A North Okaloosa man delivered a truckload of free firewood to Reynolds’ home.
A Niceville woman dropped off a $500 money order to help this woman she didn’t know. “It was just something I felt I needed to do,” she told me.
Hearing about such charitable acts was, primarily, touching, and professionally reaffirming, as these readers placed so much trust in my words on a page.
However, something far more important was happening: these Northwest Florida heroes added lines to the page and made the story great.
Whether you agree or disagree with Reynolds’ protest, how awesome is it that mostly perfect strangers came forward to help this woman? How comforting is it to hear uplifting news?
Of course, some criticized these Good Samaritans as soon as our tweets and Facebook posts announced their good deeds.
“What about the homeless?” they said.
It’s a fair point. Initially, I wondered that, too. Then I recalled an adaptation of Loren Eiseley's essay, "The Star Thrower." In the adaptation, a father sees his son pick up starfish from the shore and toss them back, one by one, into the ocean. This bewilders the dad.
After all, “there are hundreds of thousands of starfish on this beach. You throwing a starfish back, one at a time, isn’t going to help,” he says.
The boy picks up a starfish and says, “It helped that one!”
Similarly, the people who helped Ms. Reynolds made a difference she will never forget.
In the process, through this retelling of their good deeds, I hope they’ve inspired others to do the same.