When I read this story last year, my EXACT thought was.....shiiiid I would have kept it, owner's lost etc.....now after reading this, I know for a fact that no matter how messed up I ever am, I'll always do the right thing.....I know, I know, sad it took this to make me come to that realization.
Homeless man's good deed was a lifetime in the making
Returning lost bag of money was only first step
by: Dianna M. Náñez
- Nov. 30, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
About a year ago, Dave Tally returned a sack full of cash to its rightful owner.
It wasn't an easy decision for a 49-year-old man who had been living on the streets for six years.
But Tally returned the $3,300. He decided it was the right thing to do.
In the year since then, Tally's entire life has changed.
People familiar with how far Tally has come since returning the money think his story has all the makings of a Hollywood feel-good flick -- a man is down on his luck, and one right choice is all it takes to turn his life around.
But Tally's story is not that simple. Giving back the money was only one step.
One man's decision changes perception of homeless
The best way to understand how Tally's single good deed sparked a series of life-changing moments is to let him tell it.
A year ago, Tally was homeless.
Most nights, he slept on a mat at a church-based homeless shelter run by Tempe Community Action Agency.
During the day, with nowhere else to go, he walked the streets. That is where he found a backpack full of cash last November.
The $3,300 might as well have been $1 million as far as Tally was concerned.
He thought about the things he could pay for: a cheap apartment, a bike. The wish list was not hard to make for a man who had spent the previous six years homeless.
But keeping the cash, Tally explained, "just didn't feel right."
He had found the backpack at a Tempe light-rail station. He knew it likely belonged to a college kid.
"I just couldn't do it," he said.
Stephen Sparks, director of operations at Tempe Community Action Agency, said that the caseworkers at Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program already had seen Tally's potential when he showed up for a bed each night in a shelter that required sobriety.
I-HELP coordinators had selected Tally as one of the program's night monitors. That responsibility often earned him a spot in the shelter.
Tally was asked to encourage people to respect the program's rules. Although many shelters struggle with violence and crime, I-HELP rarely has such troubles.
"The program works because people like Dave who are homeless ... don't want to do anything to hurt the people from the church who are kind enough to let them sleep there," Sparks said.
At the time, Tally was working on a step-by-step recovery program. Drugs, alcohol and a string of bad decisions had dogged him for much of his life. He had lost his driver's license when he got a DUI, lost his job, and bit by bit his life unraveled.
Tally had developed a plan with an agency caseworker to reach his goals.
To get a job, he needed to get his driver's license reinstated. He had to pay fines related to that crime and other traffic violations. He had to get rid of some bad debt.
A bag full of money would have been an easy fix.
But to meet any one of those goals, he knew he would have to keep attending his recovery meetings.
Sparks said his staff believed in Tally. "He was so committed to his sobriety," he said.
Tally says it's hard to have faith in yourself when you've gone so far as to dig through the trash for a meal and been so low that you've hurt the people who love you most.
Struggling with what to do with the money he had found, Tally confided in Sam Sumner, his mentor at I-HELP. Sumner told Tally it was up to him to make a decision about whether to keep it.
Tally says the choice came down to not being able to take something he didn't earn from someone who might need it.
There was no ID in the backpack, but Sumner found a flash drive and helped Tally track down the owner.
The cash belonged to Bryan Belanger, an ASU student who, distracted in a conversation on his cellphone, forgot his bag. Belanger had planned to use the money to buy a car to replace one wrecked in a recent accident.
Meeting Belanger and hearing the student thank and praise him for his honesty and kindness made Tally feel good about himself, he says. He hadn't had that feeling in awhile.
Tally says it was more than enough thanks for a man who was used to people on the streets treating him like he was invisible.
But what happened next was more than Tally ever expected.
Tally's good deed sparked an international outpouring of goodwill. People wanted to help him get off the streets.
An Arizona Republic
story about his act of kindness went national. He was interviewed by CNN, People
magazine and ABC's Diane Sawyer. A few foreign-news outlets picked up the story. And Maxwell House coffee put him in a 30-second ad as part of a marketing campaign on the power of optimism.
Sparks said agency workers worried that the spotlight might be too much for Tally.
"We told him anytime he wanted to take a break he could," he said.
But Tally said he wanted to use his 15 minutes of fame to promote the non-profit that had given him a meal and place to sleep at night.
Tally's story hit a chord with viewers. Donations started pouring in for him and for I-HELP.
At final count, donations for Tally reached $10,000. A lawyer volunteered to help him fix his legal record so he could get his driver's license back. A dentist fixed his teeth.
It took about six months, but Tally's lawyer arranged for him to clean up his driving record and get his license back by paying restitution and doing community service.
Tally used his donation fund to pay fines. He saved most of the rest for a home.
"A lot of people in Dave's shoes would have taken that money and spent it. It's sad to say, but probably one year later we'd see them back in our shelter," Sparks said. "Not Dave. He kept seeing his caseworker. He stayed with his goals."
Sitting in the Tempe Escalante Community Garden earlier this month, Tally shook his head when he thought about his friends at the non-profit and the people who were willing to help a complete stranger. He thinks his commitment pales in comparison.
"I just want to thank everyone who was willing to help give me a second chance in life," he said.
The media attention prompted job offers from around the nation. With more than three times the amount of money he had returned in his pocket, it would have been so easy for Tally to start over miles away from the Valley where he had made so many mistakes.
But Tally's second chance would end up being right in front of him.
Tally gets sad when he thinks about a homeless man whose crooning earned him national fame about the same time last year that Tally was in the news.
"We all know how that went bad," he said, referring to the man's relapse with substance abuse.
Tally knows how easily life can spiral out of control when it comes to the disease of addiction.
"I didn't want to waste all the good that people had done for me," he said.
Even though he had enough money to move out of the shelter right away last year, Tally asked to keep volunteering and sleeping there.
Last January, Tally moved into his own apartment. He didn't want to live in a big, fancy apartment because he worried about the temptations that might come with that lifestyle.
Tally chose a no-frills, five-unit complex across the street from a church where he had slept when he was homeless.
He said he wanted "a reminder of where I've been and where I'm not going back again."
Seeing Tally's commitment to getting his life in order, the non-profit offered him an internship at a Tempe community garden it was starting to help fill the charity's food pantry with fresh vegetables and fruits.
Before Tally was homeless, he had worked as a landscape supervisor and gardener.
"Dave had the background, and we needed someone who understood what we were trying to do," Sparks said.
Sparks offered Tally a six-month internship with the opportunity for a full-time job as the manager of the community garden depending on his performance.
In June, Sparks called Tally into his office for a review.
"I messed with him a little, but I knew he was getting the job," Sparks said. "He'd worked so hard."
Tally says that he now has his dream career.
"I'm blessed," he said, adding that he hopes to return to school to further his horticulture studies.
He is in the garden almost every day planting, digging and cultivating food that is distributed to community volunteers and to the food pantry.
"I just don't want anybody to have to take something out of the garbage to eat," Tally said, explaining why he spends so much time in the garden.
Recently, he started managing an internship program that allows people who are homeless to volunteer in the garden.
He doesn't preach to anyone, though.
"I let them know that when they're ready to make changes, it's possible," he said.
"I learned in my recovery program not to judge other people. I guess all I can say is that if I hadn't been at that point ... where I was working the program ... I wouldn't have been at the point to make changes in my life."
Last week, Tally boarded a plane to California to visit his parents for Thanksgiving.
"My mom bought about 50 copies of the People
magazine I was in," Tally said with a big smile.
Seeing his parents' pride made it easier for Tally to believe in himself again.
In the spring, when Tally's license was reinstated, he bought a motorcycle. He follows a strict budget to maintain his simple lifestyle.
"My bills, they get priority. Nothing else gets done until they get paid," he said. "It's a great feeling to be able to put back into society after being a person who was dependent on society for so long."
At the end of a day's work, Tally gets to go home.
"The key that opens my door is a privilege, and I have to earn it."
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