Rich Smith was riding shotgun in a 20-foot box truck through one of Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs when he noticed an elderly woman on a riding lawnmower cutting her grass. The woman was on a rather steep hillside, so he kept his eye on her. Then, just as they were driving by, the fear that was floating in the back of his mind became a reality. The hillside proved too steep and the lawnmower flipped, rolling over sideways and landing on top of the woman.
Smith and the driver pulled over, jumped out of the truck and rushed up the hillside. They lifted the lawnmower off of the woman, and sat with her as she overcame the shock of what happened. After a few minutes and a quick self-examination to make sure nothing was broken—it wasn’t—she thanked them for coming to her rescue and insisted they get back to work. They walked back down the hillside to the truck, and she returned to cutting the grass, albeit from a different angle.
“I’ll tell you, that was scary,” Smith says.
It’s also, in many ways, the life of those who drive for St. Vincent de Paul’s stores, spending their days on the road picking up donations. While they don’t fulfill the “neighbors helping neighbors” mission in the same way as Vincentians, that is, in fact, what they are doing when they collect donations.
As the employees who deal directly with the public, they also have the additional responsibility of being the face of the organization. For many donors, the drivers are the first—and possibly only—person they ever meet from St. Vincent de Paul, meaning their opinion of the organization can be largely based on that interaction.
For Smith, he has tried to fully embrace that responsibility for the 13 years he has been a driver. “If you get an opportunity to help, you take it,” he says. “If someone has a mattress or couch that we can’t accept, you at least carry it out of a house for them because they probably can’t move it otherwise. Other drivers do the same thing. It’s just what you do.”
Although sometimes, at least for Smith, he does more. He’s pulled over and pushed stalled cars off the interstate. He’s even gone so far as to move turtles and wounded groundhogs out of the road so they don’t get run over, which would not only harm the animal but could potentially cause a wreck for the driver.
“Once I was on my way home and saw a bird in the road, and cars swerving to avoid running over it,” he says. “I recognized it as a red-tailed hawk. So I pulled over, grabbed a towel and walked over to it. I thought I’d at least drag it over to the side of the road.”
As he grabbed its talons, though, much to his surprise the hawk grabbed him back. It was actually still alive. So he moved it into the grass and sat next to it for a while. Suddenly, the bird stood up, shook its head a few times and flew off to a nearby tree. It turned around, looked at Smith, squawked a few times, and flew away.
Smith shrugs at the efforts. Even though these mission moments aren’t part of his job description, they are actually what help sustain him through the long days, he says.
“I could probably make more money somewhere else,” he says, “but I like what I do.”
And sometimes, the one who’s impacted the most by his encounters is, well, him.
“Once me and a partner were headed to a house out in Loveland for a pickup,” he says, “and we saw these three or four boys out with what looked like a lemonade stand. We continued on and made the pickup, and it was a hot day, so as we were going back we decided to stop and get something to drink from these boys. As it turns out, they weren’t selling lemonade but selling rocks. They had some quartz and some pretty rocks and some shark teeth in their cups. So we asked them what they were doing with the profits and they said donating them to St. Vincent de Paul. We said, ‘Are you saying that because you saw our truck?’ They said no, that was their intention all along. So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, whatever you’ve made, I’ll double it.’ They had $9, so I gave them a $20 and told them to keep the money they raised and do something fun with it. I gave them a donation receipt for the $20 and gave the money to the office when we got back. They got rewarded for their efforts. We got a donation. It worked out great.”
He smiles at the memory.
“The only disappointing part of the whole experience was I never got any lemonade.”