Michael with Randi at TAM 7We are here to add to the sum of human goodness. To prove the thing exists. And  however finite each individual act of courage or generosity, self-sacrifice or grace – it still proves the thing exists. Each act adds to the fund. It needs replenishment. – Josephine Hart

I have occasionally seen people lament (or brag, depending which side of the aisle they're on) that one of the advantages a faith-based organization has over other types is its ability to raise funds for charities with relative ease. There is no doubt that these groups, from the local soup kitchen to the Salvation Army, do a tremendous amount of good. But that doesn't mean you can count out an outfit like the good ol' JREF.  So gather around children, because I have a story to tell.

As I've mentioned here before, I have ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It is better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a neuromuscular disorder that quickly robs its victim of most voluntary movement while leaving the mental processes intact. Essentially the patient becomes trapped in his own body. Aside from the baseball figure for whom it is named, probably the most famous person to be diagnosed with ALS is Stephen Hawking. Most of the time the limbs are the first to go. Between 10-20% of cases, however, are "prebulbar", meaning the symptoms start in the mouth or throat region. Such was my situation. About 2 1/2 years ago I noticed I'd occasionally slur a word or two here and there. As time went on the effect became more frequent and more pronounced. Soon it was quite noticeable in everything I said. Eventually only those who knew me well could comprehend me, but not for long. At the present time, there are about half a dozen words I can say that only my wife understands.

As my speech deteriorated, my reliance on other forms of communication grew. I started simply by carrying a notepad and pencil. I considered learning sign language but the tremor in my fingers suggested I wouldn't have the use of them long enough to make it worthwhile. I went through a variety of text-to-speech devices, tried TTY, and spent a lot of time chatting online with friends. Last November, I lost the ability to use a mouse and keyboard. For the next six months I went without a computer, and my sole means of communication was tapping out texts on a touch screen cell phone using a chopstick as a stylus.

Lest you think this is a sob story, let me assure you it is not. It is one of hope and goodwill, of kindness and friendship. The time was coming soon when I would no longer have enough movement in my hands to even use my cell phone, but there was an option. I learned through our local chapter of the ALS Association (a wonderful organization; check it out at www.alsphiladelphia.org) of an eye gaze system where cameras track the movement of your eyes and direct the cursor accordingly on an on-screen keyboard. The only problem was that even with insurance, the cost was prohibitive. It would take close to a year to save it up.

Enter the skeptic community. Through the generosity of scholarships and individuals (a story in itself) I was able to attend TAM7 last year, my first one. I shared a room with a very kind man and we exchanged numbers so we could find each other over the course of the weekend. Nine months later he discovered he still had it, dropped me a line,  and we corresponded a bit. I mentioned my situation and something I said must have resonated because what happened next was, in my eyes, nothing short of astounding. Unbeknownst to me, he took it upon himself to go on the JREF forum and start a fundraiser, building a website and hosting it on a server out of his own home. As he put it, he threw a snowball at the mountain and the mountain responded with an avalanche. At least two discussion threads were started. Skepchick.org picked up on it and I'm told it got a mention in Bad Science. Soon the site had a few hundred hits, then a couple thousand. And in just four days, the cost of the system had been covered. Two weeks later it arrived, and for the first time in nearly a year I could use a voice to speak to my wife, my children, and my friends.

It was all due to a bunch of people some of whom I've met exactly once, many who I've just exchanged comments with online, and a few who don't know me at all. It was people from JREF, but also some from sites I haven't visited very often. There were people from all over the country who donated, and I suspect a few from beyond our borders as well. So what's the common thread that links these folks together? They are good. They are kind. They are altruistic. And they are members of the skeptic community.

This was not an isolated incident. When Robert Lancaster, creator of such sites as StopKaz and StopSylvia, found himself dependent on a wheelchair, the members of the JREF made sure he would not be homebound by rallying together and getting him a handicap-accessible van. The JREF as an organization provides scholarships and educational opportunities, and last year the generosity of its members provided the funds for vaccinations to over 300 children from underprivileged families in just one weekend. In fact, judging from the speed at which these things come together once people set their mind to it, I'd venture to say that the charitable projects I've witnessed undertaken by the skeptical community are more efficient and effective than any church-sponsored bake sale or 5K run I've seen.

I know what loving and giving people JREF members are. If you didn't before, you do now. So I suppose the only thing left to do is let everyone else know. Take another look at the first sentence I wrote in this article. What those people are observing is not a truism; it is merely a perception, and not one we have to live by. A grassroots movement on the local level can have a tremendous impact. Have your own skeptic's organization set up a scholarship for the home town high school senior who demonstrates exceptional critical thinking skills.  Pick a neighborhood family who is down on their luck to be the beneficiary of a 3rd grade read-a-thon. Offer to read aloud during story time at your library or bookstore (and if they don't have a story time, they should, so start one! ). Skeptics as a rule are very intelligent and imaginative. If those qualities were applied to charitable means on a large scale on a regular basis, the possibilities would be endless.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. – Aesop, The Lion and the Mouse


Michael is known as "NobbyNobs" on the JREF Forum.