Neighbor2Neighbor: How you know when to reach out to strangers

2012-12-09T18:32:00Z 2012-12-12T18:35:28Z Neighbor2Neighbor: How you know when to reach out to strangersHILARY ZUNIN Napa Valley Register
December 09, 2012 6:32 pm  • 

“To give or not to give?”

What does it take to give to a stranger?

You may not know Officer Larry DePrimo, but you probably know of him. He’s the New York City police officer who saw what appeared to be a homeless man sprawled on a curb in Times Square on a frigid November night. It’s a sight seen all too often even in this wealthiest of nations, but this time the cop on the beat took special notice. You see, despite freezing temperatures, the man was barefoot.

The officer crouched down, chatted with the man, asked his shoe size. Then, he acted. He went into a nearby Skechers store, told the clerk what he’d seen, and bought a sturdy pair of winter boots for $75 out of pocket. The clerk gave the cop his employee discount to help the cause.

This incident was likely to have gone unnoticed by others if not for an Arizona tourist, herself in law enforcement. She saw the cop with the barefoot man and snapped a photo on her cellphone. His generous action so moved her that she sent the photo to the New York City Police Department’s Facebook page. To date, more than 600,000 people on Facebook have “liked” the item and 200,000 of them have shared it with their friends. That’s how it first came to the attention of Napa Valley CanDo.

Turns out that Office DePrimo’s father was a firefighter, and as a child his son witnessed his dad crouching down to give a gift to another stranger in need. The apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.

We like to think that the impulse to be of service to others is innate. That we’re born with giving genes. That may be so, but in truth, the actions of good Samaritans are often taught. They’re modeled by loving parents and encouraged with words from pulpits. They’re embodied in bumper stickers urging us to perform “random acts of kindness.” They are expressed in school, Scouting projects and organizations like CanDo, through which coats, cans of food, and thousands of pairs of gently used shoes have been donated by Napa Valley residents to ease the lives of people we may never know.

Now the story of this gift that so resonated with Americans turns out to be complicated. It seems that the barefoot man has a small apartment paid for with the help of government and social service agencies. He also has a family in Pennsylvania. But this veteran also has a history of mental problems and a fervent desire not to accept help.

Some may read this and say, “Figures. You can’t trust anyone these days.” But cynicism is only one response, because no matter what the story of this man without shoes on a cold autumn night, Officer DePrimo was prompted to act by a good and generous heart.

Such altruistic acts yield benefit all year long, but especially in this season of giving, CanDo encourages readers to reach out, “neighbor to neighbor.” You can search the Register’s online archives to access more than 65 Neighbor2Neighbor columns. Each highlights the noteworthy work of a local nonprofit and lets you know how to help. Or you can go online to find holiday wishlists of goods and services published in this newspaper. You can put your surplus items, like furniture and working computer equipment, to good use. Links to both the Neighbor2Neighbor column archives and the Register’s holiday wishlists can be found at

Finally, you can, as Officer DePrimo did, meet the eyes of someone on the street, reach into your heart and give a stranger a gift.

Hilary Zunin is a retired teacher from Napa High School and a founder of Napa Valley CanDo. For more information, contact Zunin at To learn more about opportunities for community service, visit

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