Chris Rosenblum | Webster’s customers pass on kindness

More and more, the story seemed apocryphal to Elaine Meder-Wilgus.

But it made her think.

As the tale in several emails went, three well-dressed women walked into a café somewhere, ordered for themselves and then asked for “suspended coffees.”

After a while, four posh attorneys — of course — did the same: pay for extra coffees that other patrons could have for free if they couldn’t afford a beverage.

Just then, wait for it, a man in shabby clothes shuffled in and hesitated before the menu. Within seconds, he held a steaming cup.

“People kept sending it to me,” said Meder-Wilgus, the owner of Webster’s Bookstore Café in downtown State College. “But I thought, ‘I like this idea.’ ”

And so, about two weeks ago, the Kindness Board came to be.

Unobtrusively tucked away on a door next to the café register, the ordinary-looking bulletin board has a special purpose.

Pinned on it are notes, coupons readily redeemable. They promise a bowl of soup, a sandwich, a cup of coffee or hot chocolate — free to anyone who needs to take a slip, from one customer to another.

The way it works, patrons purchase a menu item of their choosing and tack a slip on the board. Meder-Wilgus started the ball rolling with some soup coupons, in keeping with her vision of the board as more than a coffee bank.

“Really, if someone is down on their luck, they need nutrition, not caffeine in different forms,” she said.

It seems like kindness has become a bit trendy these days.

Pinterest sites and other websites espouse random acts of kindness, from something as simple as taping a dollar bill to a vending machine. Customers using a fast-food restaurant drive-through line pay for cars behind them.

The Webster’s version offers a nice twist, in that benefactors donate something substantial but don’t have to choose the recipient.

Someone taking a Kindness Board slip might be truly indigent and need a hot meal, or he or she might be short of cash that day. They might have, as the board’s explanation sign says, just forgotten their wallet.

“No explanation is needed,” said staff member Alex Barksey.

Meder-Wilgus said, unlike in a more urban area, it’s often not apparent in State College who might be hard-pressed to buy a sandwich. She knows residents with no “convenient signs of suffering” but who may be strapped nonetheless.

“There are people who don’t have obvious need,” she said. “There are many people who get paid (at a job) but who can’t make it to the end of the month.”

So far, about 50 slips have been bought — by residents, by Penn State students, all ages. Every day, Meder-Wilgus said, someone either donates or benefits.

“I know one person who has used it,” she said. “He’s very appreciative of getting nutrition.”

Another patron, who could easily take a slip without guilt, instead bought several.

“This person gave me $15 and said, ‘Put some items up there,’ ” Meder-Wilgus said. “And I know this person is living paycheck to paycheck. I was really touched.”

Matt Sullenberger, a Penn State plant biology doctoral student, was impressed by the generosity on display when visiting the café recently. He thinks that once word spreads of the board, it’ll catch on with patrons.

“It captures the spirit of this independent shop,” Sullenberger said. “A lot of people who come in here would be interested in an idea like that.”

Meder-Wilgus hopes so.

She knows many of her customers are philanthropically minded and give to local charities and nonprofits. But she sees the board giving people an opportunity to give on a more personal, human scale — even if they never know who they help.

“Food is one of the ways we show our caring,” she said.

It’s not required, but recipients can leave notes, poems or drawings if they wish, giving a bit of kindness back for everyone to enjoy.

For Meder-Wilgus, the board only takes a philosophy one step further.

She said she has given coffee, soup and other sustenance to people off the street if they appear in need. But that was her acting, just one person.

When people sent her the suspended coffee emails, a light bulb went off. She heard the message.

She needed to give them a chance to give.

“They were saying, ‘I want to participate. Can you help me be a part of this?’ ” she said. “I thought, ‘Ah yes, I can.’ ”