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With the holidays here, The Ann is focused on giving. Specifically, we’re putting a spotlight on those who give back to their fellow Ann Arborites.

Molly Dobson | Photo by Jaime Murrel

Molly Dobson | Photo by Jaime Murrel

There is no shortage of generous people who merit inclusion. People like Molly Dobson, 92, perhaps the grande dame of “giving back” in Ann Arbor. She’s been supporting — and, in some cases, helping launch — local organizations for more than six decades. She’s backed the Neutral Zone, the Humane Society, the YMCA, the University of Michigan’s Development Summer Internship Program and dozens more, and her generosity has changed thousands of lives, including her own. “I can’t tell you the satisfaction I’ve gotten from volunteering, or giving, or both,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful privilege.”

The pages that follow feature stories about acts of kindness that our readers told us about, and in some cases have written themselves. Some are small acts committed in the moment and some are large acts built into life plans, but all help paint the picture of a community steeped in generosity.

We want to hear your stories about “giving back.” Post them here, email them to theannmag [at] gmail.com, visit facebook.com/theannmag or call 734-369-4239. And if you want to roll up your sleeves and get busy, the United Way of Washtenaw County has a website — uwgive.galaxydigital.com — that links volunteers with organizations.

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Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Duty, honor, country

When Ryan Friedrichs commits, he literally commits.

At age 33, armed with a master’s degree from Harvard and a rewarding job furthering the cause of democracy, Friedrichs joined the Army infantry because he wanted to relieve troops in Afghanistan that he felt were carrying too high a burden for their country.

To those who knew him well, this made perfect sense. Friedrichs doesn’t do things halfway. He doesn’t just climb a mountain, he climbs Mt. Rainier and Mt. Whitney. He doesn’t run a marathon, but an ultramarathon. He doesn’t encourage people to vote, he signs them up by the thousands.

To hear him tell it, he was simply doing the right thing when he joined the Army. And he’s amazed that you’re amazed.

Friedrichs, now 37, is Ann Arbor to the core. He grew up in Scio Township, attended Ann Arbor Open, Forsythe Middle, Pioneer High (graduating in ’95) and the University of Michigan. While at Pioneer, he visited China and Tiananmen Square, where a few years earlier hundreds of students involved in a pro-democracy movement had been killed by soldiers. Something clicked for him while he was there and he went on a “pro-democracy kick.” He’s still on it.

At U-M he earned a bachelor’s degree — writing an honors thesis focused on the development of criminal law in China — and national kudos for his organizational abilities. He and four other students founded Voice Your Vote in 1996, registering thousands of students to vote that year and earning Ann Arbor a visit from MTV’s “Choose or Lose” bus. That set him on his career path; after graduating he went to work for the Youth Vote Coalition in Washington, D.C., eventually becoming executive director.

He wasn’t satisfied with the number of voters his group registered — “We did good work, but the needle wasn’t moving” — so he enrolled at Harvard’s Kennedy School, eventually earning a master’s in public policy and writing his thesis on youth civic engagement.

His orientation at Harvard was on Sept. 11, 2001, when “everything changed. People became focused on the world.” He didn’t know it at the time, but his horizons had expanded, as well.

He met his wife, Jocelyn Benson, at Harvard, where she was studying law, and after they graduated they settled in Detroit in 2004, where she’d had a clerkship (and is now dean of the Wayne State University Law School) and he saw a wonderful opportunity to continue making a difference.

He became executive director of Michigan Voice and State Voices, focusing on civic participation among underrepresented groups. He felt he was making a difference.

But he’d begun working with veterans’ groups on the side. An avid runner, in 2010 he and six others tacked an extra 28 miles onto the 26.2-mile Detroit Free Press Marathon in a self-imposed challenge they dedicated to fallen soldier Joel Gentz, a first lieutenant who died in a rescue mission in Afghanistan.

Friedrichs was haunted by the notion that a small number of Americans were carrying the burden for the entire country in the war in Afghanistan. “I had gotten to know veterans at a very personal level,” he said, even meeting a soldier who’d been deployed seven times. He felt that wasn’t right, so, “At that point it was very difficult not to serve.”

He decided — with Jocelyn’s blessing — to join the military. He could have gone in as an officer but chose to go in as an enlisted man, as an airborne infantryman. He explained his choice to serve at the lowest rung of the military: “The Army is carrying the heaviest burden in Afghanistan, and most of that is borne by infantry. It was really important for me to go to Afghanistan. That’s where the majority of the sacrifice was happening. You have to be the change you want to see. … It was important to share the load.”

Just like that, he was in the 173rd Airborne. He was sent to Italy, touching down, coincidentally, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He was in Afghanistan from July 2012 until spring 2013, where he saw his share of firefights. And where a friend from basic training died.

Another reason to join, he said, was so he could be a bigger help to veterans when they get back home. “I wanted to go through the pipeline and understand better what’s needed on the other side,” he said.

After completing three and a half years of active duty, Sgt. Friedrichs is in the Individual Ready Reserves. Until that commitment ends Jan. 11, 2019, he could be called up at any time. And he’s OK with that, because he says it’s all been worth it. “I came back more optimistic than when I went to Afghanistan,” he says. When reminded that many Americans think our efforts there have been wasted, he says, with intensity, “Tell it to the 7 million kids who are in school there now, who weren’t before. … There’s been remarkable progress there.”

What did he learn? “It makes you more compassionate. It makes you tremendously grateful for what you’ve got.”

He not exactly resting these days. His plan, he says, is “to use my urban planning and land-use background (from Harvard) to be as pound-for-pound useful to the revitalization of Detroit as possible. Additionally, to work closely with veterans’ reintegration organizations to support the 1 million service members that will exit the service in next three to four years.”

— Kyle Poplin

• • •

A good day, thanks to total strangers

The author, Rebecca Lambers, is a working textile artist with couture and silk flower installations, and meets clients at her Ann Arbor studio on Liberty Street. She cares for moraine acreage in the Sharon Short Hills.

The author, Rebecca Lambers, is a working textile artist with couture and silk flower installations, and meets clients at her Ann Arbor studio on Liberty Street. She cares for moraine acreage in the Sharon Short Hills.

On a lovely day in September, en route to improv modern dance class at Ann Arbor’s Arts in Motion studio from my home in southwestern Washtenaw County, on a rural road my muffler pipe broke loose behind the catalytic converter. This had happened a few years back and it was tied up by a friendly neighbor. The replacement was expensive. My new mechanic, Todd at Auto Tech Center, had been reworking it to last a little longer, perhaps to outlast the car.

I called AAA and suggested they send a mechanic small enough to crawl under and tie it up. The response from local service was a runaround of dishonesty and taking. The AAA agent was great; she was apparently genuinely concerned, calling back every 10 minutes with options while I, in my contrary way, worked out which way was least disliked.

My mechanic suggested that if someone stopped, I should let them tie it up. Dark monster trucks with shaded windows were waved on. A decision on service was made, then a wait.

But then a young man quietly stopped, seemed surprised to see me, said he’d noticed the low pipe and thought the car belonged to his sister’s friend. A wire dress hanger, five minutes and $10 later, I was on my way, the tow service cancelled. I’d missed class, a wonder of gentility, but experienced something different. My mechanic said the tie-up was as good as he’d seen and the dealership was generous with an old parts credit.

Later the same day, while waiting out a downpour outside Ace Barnes Hardware, a woman offered me use of her nice large umbrella to get to my loaner car. I accepted. Her action was a gentle nudge to note how generosity from others (including the New Chelsea Market owners, by the way), some of whom were doing their days’ work, and a few who had attentively stepped in, had made for a good and peaceful day.

• • •

‘You never know who needs to see a smiling face’

The author, Lauren Houck, is a junior at Eastern Michigan University majoring in public relations.

The author, Lauren Houck, is a junior at Eastern Michigan University majoring in public relations.

Until a brisk fall night, Ruth (who wants to remain anonymous) was never one to execute random acts of kindness. But there she was, standing in line in a Shell station waiting to pay for her fuel and a soda, watching the woman in front of her count the change from her purse as she frantically called her husband, telling him he needed to pack up the children and head over to the station because she’d pumped $20 of gas into her car before realizing she’d left her wallet at home.

Ruth had just gotten off a babysitting job where she made $40. Something in her heart told her to give the stranger half of her earnings. The stranger resisted her at first, but when she realized Ruth wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer — and because she really needed the money — she accepted.

Ruth now tries to share compassion with random people. “You never know who needs to see a smiling face,” she said. “I’ve been there. It’s the best sensation when someone notices you need a smile, and better when someone helps you. You have to be the good you want to see in the world.”

• • •

Maddie Goodson and Kevin Zhang

Maddie Goodson and Kevin Zhang

Learning about helping

The author, Olympia Poplin, is a junior at Skyline High School.

The author, Olympia Poplin, is a junior at Skyline High School.

Maddie Goodson and Kevin Zhang are Skyline High School seniors and co-leaders of the Interact Club, a high school volunteer group. Together they organize many volunteer opportunities for Skyline students.

Maddie was 6 or 7 when she started volunteering with her family through their church. They volunteered at a homeless shelter down the road from her house, providing meals once or twice a month. She was also exposed to volunteering by her soccer coach. He started a program at WideWorld Sports Center for children with disabilities. Soon she was volunteering on her own.

The photo is by Jaime Murrel, also a junior at Skyline.

The photo is by Jaime Murrel, also a junior at Skyline.

Kevin didn’t start volunteering until sixth grade. At YVC, a YMCA camp, he volunteered at Food Gatherers and other Ann Arbor organizations. However, he saw volunteers in action at age 7 when he was in the hospital for at least three weeks. He remembers college students visiting C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and that still inspires him.

Maddie’s favorite volunteer projects involve house repairs. She’s been to Chicago to revamp houses and landscape with her church youth group and is especially proud to have helped in a very poor area of the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky: “It was an incredible experience because I could see how much the people appreciated our work and it was unbelievable to see how much it helped.”

Kevin likes making children happy, especially helping sick kids in hospitals through the Ronald McDonald House. He has volunteered to feed the homeless and hopes to one day help in homeless education projects. He’s worked on small projects that he hopes generate big dividends.

Maddie and Kevin both volunteer because it gives them a new perspective on how fortunate they are and how much they can make a difference. They get a feeling of satisfaction and completeness after volunteering. They appreciate the fulfillment of having helped someone and spreading happiness.

 • • •

Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Dale Briggs makes us all want to ‘get better’

The author, the Rev. Melissa Anne Rogers, is the associate pastor for pastoral care and congregational life at First Presbyterian Ann Arbor.

The author, the Rev. Melissa Anne Rogers, is the associate pastor for pastoral care and congregational life at First Presbyterian Ann Arbor.

If you ask Dale Briggs, “How are you?” he always says, “Oh, much better.” His reply takes you back for a moment, and then you understand what he means. Dale is always getting better; each day is another day to improve, with God’s help.

Born on Thanksgiving Day 1930, Dale has always been a thankful person. “I am grateful and blessed. My life has been about living that out.”

A U-M chemical engineering professor emeritus, Dale started a flower business 26 years ago in his home. Six days a week, he drives to the Veteran’s Administration hospital to leave flowers in the chapel and the Community Living Center. While there, he visits the patients in the dialysis unit. He leaves his flowers, some encouraging words and, for those who welcome them, prayers.

“A few good words go a long way,” Dale told me.

Each week, Dale also travels to 11 locations in the Engineering College and three places in the Music School to leave flowers for the staff and students. Each person who runs into Dale is met by his positive spirit and an upbeat interaction. On Sundays, Dale brings flowers to brighten our early morning worship service, then gives them to the church office staff who support our ministries and programs.

On Sunday after church, Dale spends several hours visiting people in difficult circumstances who can’t get to church. He reads through the morning worship bulletin with each one and offers a brief reflection on scripture. Sometimes he sings a hymn with Betty, who has Alzheimer’s, or offers a short reflection on a Bible passage to a man in the hospital for multiple weeks.

This is his greatest love — bringing hope, peace and good words. Our members tell me they feel our church family reaching out to them with God’s love through Dale.   

Beyond hospitals, rehab centers, university offices and his church, Dale offers what he can at one more place where people need encouragement — the Washtenaw County jail. Seven years ago, at age 77, Dale started teaching a class there — “Alcoholics for Christ” — and every Thursday since he’s been there to encourage the men. “Nobody is so perfect that they can’t stand a little improvement,” Dale said. He teaches a Bible class to men on two different blocks in the jail.

Even his evenings are focused on giving away his gifts. Most evenings each week, Dale and his wife of 62 years, Nancy, are at student musical performances at U-M. Dale has served on 97 doctoral committees in music; currently, he’s on seven. He’s cherished for his ability to listen and critique. In his quest to “get better,” Dale started playing the viola at age 68.

Dale and Nancy will move to Glacier Hills in a year when, Dale says, “with no yard work, I’ll have more time to do good things.” It’s an honor to know Dale and to witness how much he gives of himself. He makes us all want to “get better.”

• • •

Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Heroic kids need capes and tutus. Duh.

The author, Rachael Arula, is a junior at Eastern Michigan University majoring in journalism and apparel, textile and merchandising.

The author, Rachael Arula, is a junior at Eastern Michigan University majoring in journalism and apparel, textile and merchandising.

A hero doesn’t need a costume. But sometimes heroes make costumes.

Eastern Michigan student Gabrielle Kwalton, 19, of Brownstown stays busy. She has 10 siblings so she’s paying her way through school with scholarships and two part-time jobs. And she’s active in her sorority, Sigma Sigma Sigma.

She still finds time to help others.

Kwalton and her friend, Rachel Sattler, who attends Notre Dame, are starting a nonprofit organization, Project Tutu, to help sick kids in Michigan hospitals. They’ll make capes and tutus for the children, starting with C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor.

To cover costs, Gaby and Rachel are organizing  fundraisers at local schools.

“After I lost my brother, I wanted to give back to the hospital that gave me so much,” Gaby explained. “(Rachel) is going to be a doctor, which is why she is passionately involved. We had the idea to make tutus and capes because they were able to be easily taken off but still have the hero quality to help give the kids some strength.”

• • •

Jack and Carolyn Wallace  | Contributed

Jack and Carolyn Wallace | Contributed

Gardeners create a respite

The author, Christine M. Tracy, is an Ann Arbor journalist and writer.

The author, Christine M. Tracy, is an Ann Arbor journalist and writer.

When Jack Wallace looked out his window on Mulholland Avenue 14 years ago, he “saw a jungle.”

Across the street from the condominium he shares with his wife, Carolyn, was dense brush, twisted vines and a dumping ground for stolen bicycles.

Jack had a vision of something more. So did Carolyn: “There’s something in there,” she said, as she discovered a plot of blooming alliums and other native plants. “These native plants are neat,” Carolyn told Jack. “We need to spread them around.”

That’s precisely what they did and “Mulholland Park” was born in 2008.

From an overgrown mess, Carolyn and Jack created a lovely, tranquil respite with a mulched walking path in the heart of one of Ann Arbor’s Old West Side neighborhoods. “It’s truly a community project. We like to see people in it,” said Carolyn. “People bring plants, cut flowers and herbs and walk through. It gives us pleasure.”

• • •

Joe Meza among the cocoa trees in Ecuador. | Contributed

Joe Meza among the cocoa trees in Ecuador. | Contributed

Businesses can have more than one bottom line

Chocolate-maker Joe Meza doesn’t believe in certified “fair trade.”

“It’s really not fair,” he says, because there’s an expense involved in the certification process and it almost always comes out of the pockets of those least able to afford it. “It doesn’t work out for the farmers,” he says. “The system is rigged against them.”

He prefers “direct” and “equitable” trade, and that’s how he deals with the cocoa farmers he buys from in Ecuador.

A fair question at this point: How did an Ann Arbor “townie,” a Pioneer High and EMU graduate, end up partnering with Ecuadorian farmers and running high-end Mindo Chocolate Makers from his home in Dexter?

It’s not as strange as it might seem. Meza was born in Ecuador and moved to Ann Arbor at age 13. After graduating from EMU he discovered he had a talent for a) mechanical things and b) entrepreneurship. He eventually opened a car repair shop, ArborMotion, which he expanded to Atlanta and Eugene, Ore., and, these days, “basically runs itself.”

Meanwhile, Meza visited Ecuador in 2005 “and fell in love again with the place.” Before he knew it, he’d bought a piece of land and a chocolate factory. Why chocolate? Because Ecuador is famous for it. And, he says, why not?

Cocoa is traded on a commodities exchange, where quality isn’t factored into the price. That builds gamesmanship into the system. Buyers historically try to short sellers and sellers try to outwit buyers. Buyers usually win; Meza describes cocoa farmers as “extremely poor.”

Meza wants to make trust part of the equation. He pays twice the going rate for cocoa, he says. “I could pay less, but I have to give these guys what they deserve. Sometimes you have to be willing to pay more for something as opposed to always looking for the cheapest deal.” In return, he expects the farmers to drop the gamesmanship and sell him only high-quality cocoa so he can make the best chocolate possible.

Five years into this endeavor, Meza says he’s yet to make a profit. But he’d like to think he’s changed the lives of a few Ecuadorian farmers, and he absolutely gets to count that on his bottom line.

— Kyle Poplin

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