Virginia Turner had been expecting the call, but thought it would be a couple of days before her guests showed up at the U-Turn Ranch she runs with her husband, Timothy. The temperature was dropping, there was no working heat in the house and the Turners had hoped to offer better accommodations.
But there on the other end of the phone was Meaghan Jameson, announcing that she and her beau, Dan Kenny, were on their way, ready to put in a day's work at the Pensacola ranch.
"Are you ready to milk some goats?" Turner asked, thinking she could put them up in the tiny chapel built from the ruins of the Turners' dream house. It was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan back before the storm and her diagnosis of cancer transformed material desires into a yearning to help others.
No problem, Jameson answered with a laugh. "We were born to milk goats."
The lure to travel had been tugging at Jameson for a while. An only child from New Port Richey, she had led a pretty sheltered life — until a move to Michigan. The 2012 University of Florida graduate landed a job at a recreational management company in Traverse City, nestled on Lake Michigan where winters are fierce and summer days sprout one festival after another. That's where she met Kenny, 27. After two years of study and teaching English to elementary students in Galicia, Spain, he was back in town spinning tunes as a DJ. The two ended up working functions together and paired up on a group outing at a sushi restaurant.
Getting to know each other meant hearing about all the places he had been in Europe. Kenny had traveled cross-country too, helping move others from Michigan to the West Coast.
"Those trips were just, drive, drive, drive," Kenny said. "You really didn't get to experience the area."
The couple started planning their own cross-country road trip. They scrimped and saved and mapped out a route linking them to friends and family spread throughout the country — Colorado, Seattle, Chicago, Florida, New York along with a few "must see" stopovers such as San Francisco, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Utah's Moab National Park.
Seeing the country was a dream come true, but Jameson and Kenny wanted to deepen the experience. They decided to sprinkle the miles with good deeds.
They knew that what money they might have left after expenses wouldn't go far, so Jameson, 24, set up an online GoFundMe account and an RAK (Random Acts of Kindness) Road Trip blog explaining their altruistic venture.
"We knew we wanted to do something nice for people we met along the way, but we wanted to do bigger things than we could afford out of pocket," Kenny said.
They scanned Craigslist and Volunteermatch.org for volunteer opportunities and asked for suggestions along their route of people or organizations in need as well as those who donated money.
They started with $1,500.
"I was more than excited about that," Jameson said.
More donations rolled in as people learned what they were doing. Soon they accumulated more than $6,000.
Their first act of kindness was to donate blood. Easy enough — and free.
The second was to purchase card stock so youngsters in an arts program in Traverse City could make greeting cards that were dropped off with a bouquet of flowers to nurses and oncology patients at a local hospital.
Then they hit the road on Nov. 5 in their 2009 silver Honda CRV.
• • •
"I wasn't expecting the full magnitude of what they would do for us," said Elizabeth Hart, a childhood friend of Jameson's who works as the special education chair at an urban charter school on Chicago's south side.
Jameson and Kenny had called Hart, asking her to select a student to help out. Hart settled on a bright youngster with a talent for music and visual arts. The eldest of 14, he had bounced from one foster home to another, Hart said, and was separated from his siblings and his mother, whose parental rights were being terminated.
Jameson and Kenny bought art supplies for him and visited with him and other students.
"Our school is in a notoriously dangerous neighborhood, but that didn't faze them at all," Hart said. "They were so focused on knowing my students. You cannot believe how much something like that helps."
Hart expressed her thanks, but also explained how difficult it had been to select just one kid to help out when there were so many needs.
Jameson answered with a check for $600 to be used at Hart's discretion.
"We purchased medications, bus passes, winter gear because we had a big snowstorm and a number of kids came to school and didn't have mittens. We also helped kids buy (their) siblings holiday presents," she said.
"It's boosted my energy and given me fuel to keep doing what I am doing," Hart said. "It's fueled them (students) in the same way to know that someone cares enough to use their time and their resources to make their lives a little easier. It's something the world needs more of."
• • •
The best part of the trip, Jameson said, was the spontaneity of their encounters — such as the people seeking aid at a Seattle food pantry where they worked for a day, as well as those who volunteer regularly at the pantry.
"These are selfless people doing this work every day," Jameson said. "It's amazing."
"You don't want to go about tooting your own horn," Kenny said. "But a lot of donors say, 'I wish I were doing this.' "
And they are — albeit it vicariously.
Donations have funded a bevy of good deeds: picking up the lunch tab for a heartbroken girl overheard talking about her recent breakup, handing out gift cards to Navy sailors at a gas station, purchasing items for military care packages, providing Thanksgiving food items in Seattle, writing a $150 check for Colorado flood relief and purchasing holiday gifts for kids in the Tampa Bay area.
"It's been a real-eye opening experience," Jameson said, recalling a woman they helped in Lawrence, Kan., after they learned from the local Red Cross that her home had been damaged by a small house fire. They stopped by with 50 pounds of food for her dog and a $50 department store gift card and ended up chatting for a while. "We went to leave and she hugged us so long and so hard. I realized it wasn't about the monetary thing. It was that we spent time with her."
Throughout their trip, Jameson and Kenny have been sustained by their resourcefulness and the kindness of others. They've eaten in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, at someone else's kitchen table and downed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the road. They've slept on couches, floors, in their tent, their car and in spare rooms of friends and one trusting stranger from New Orleans who offered lodging after reading their blog. They hoped to spend more time camping, but with the cold weather they ended up using some of their own savings for hotel stays in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Flagstaff, Ariz., where they skirted a fierce winter storm.
"Going to all these places is great," Kenny said. "But if you're just having your picture taken while you're holding a sign that says you're at the Grand Canyon, you're not as tied to the experience as you are when you meet the people that care for the park."
• • •
By the time they arrived at the U-Turn Ranch in mid December, Jameson and Kenny had completed 34 random acts in 17 states.
In the past, the Turners had been beneficiaries of "word of mouth" volunteers wanting to aid their mission to help women who had been incarcerated in the Escambia County jail for nonviolent offenses.
After years of providing housing, counseling and care to women who in turn learned how to work jobs on the ranch, the Turners decided to step back to tend to much-needed repairs. But they still needed help, so they placed an ad for volunteers on Craigslist.
When Jameson called offering a day of free labor, the Turners happily accepted.
"They jumped right on in when they got here," Turner said. "Their heart was about doing whatever needed to be done — milking goats, weeding vegetable beds, cleaning out the emu pen, picking up sticks with the neighborhood kids so we could build a bonfire. It was a pretty full day."
It was a passing, yet uplifting encounter, one that lingers even as the young couple made their way in late January from Asheville, N.C., to Washington D.C., New York, Boston and Niagara Falls to dole out the $750 they had left before returning to Michigan.
"I hope they come back someday," Turner said. "I think they know they will always have a place here."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]