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Smell the Coffee: How strangers become friends

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last month, I asked a favor of readers -- to send mail to a young Scott Depot man named Timothy Merrill -- because getting the mail was one of Tim's daily chores, and he'd commented to his mom that there was never any mail for him.

For those who missed the original story, Tim is 23 years old and has Down syndrome. I talked with his mom, Kathy Gwinn, after she put a posting on Facebook looking to drum up some mail for him because she knew it would make him happy.

And, thanks to you, Tim's had a lot to be happy about.

Since the story ran -- and was kindly forwarded to people all over the world -- Tim has received 1,613 pieces of mail from 41 states, as well as Australia, Canada, Germany, Crete, Belgium, Sweden, New Zealand, Iceland, Afghanistan, Singapore and England.

Country singer Brad Paisley, a West Virginia native, sent autographed photos, guitar picks and a keychain. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin sent a Certificate of Friendship granting Tim status as a "Distinguished Mountaineer." Many teachers made a class project of sending mail, among them a pre-K class at Clay Elementary and a class at South Charleston High School, from which Tim graduated in 2009.

He received mail from a few insurance companies and police departments, including the chief of police, several from the Fraternal Order of Police, one that included a patch that had been worn by a member of the West Virginia State Police (a big hit with Tim). There were cards from pets, singing cards, a heartfelt record-a-message card. Notes came from churches and post office employees and a circuit court judge. He got a touching letter from an inmate at Mount Olive Correctional Facility, an invitation to visit Disney World, and a card from Australia that included Australian coins.

There were so many cards from so many people, and Tim had lots of favorites.

"He loved the ones with stickers or drawings or pictures," his mother said. But he got the biggest kick out of a couple of restaurant gift cards that came in the mail because it meant he could treat his family to dinner for a change. He got such a charge out of that.

Kathy was especially touched by a letter from a 26-year-old Alabama man named Drew Walker. She showed me the letter, and I had to agree -- there was something special about it. Drew thanked Tim for helping him see that the world is a special place that shouldn't be taken for granted. He asked Tim to be his friend. Shared the kind of things about his life that would make Drew's mom as proud of her boy as Kathy is of Tim.

"I am blown away by the kindness and the heartwarming notes he received," Kathy wrote. "It has totally restored my faith in people."

It's funny the power strangers can have, how these people who never before had any contact with Tim or his mother were willing to take the time to do a kindness, knowing they'd get nothing in return.

Even though there's so much gloom and doom in the news, day after day, strangers are quietly continuing to help other strangers, donating their money and time and belongings, and even their blood.

It's so commonplace that we take it for granted. We seldom even notice it until some kind person we never met does something that affects us directly, or someone we know.

We might all start out as strangers.

Then someone like Timothy allows us to be friends.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com. Timothy Merrill can be reached at P.O. Box 57, Scott Depot, WV 25560.


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