Years ago, if someone had offered me free donuts, I would have happily accepted them and sampled each one. However, 2021 is a different tune. I was offered donuts and turned them down; they were offered as an apology for a messed-up order. I explained this was a sweet gesture, but not necessary. Moments later, when the same kind person asked me again to take the donuts, the offer was a request for something bigger. I was asked to distribute the donuts to feed people experiencing homelessness There was only one response to this ask. Here’s how one simple request changed the way I see humanity.

Late one night at a local donut shop, I returned to the drive-thru to get credit for an order gone wrong. The store was closed, and when I asked to speak with a manager, a very kind employee thanked me for not yelling at him. Their computers were down that hectic Monday morning and angry customers were out in droves. He thanked me for my patience and apologized with the offer of a dozen donuts. Too bad my donut eating days are long gone, because I would have happily devoured that delicious Boston cream pie, powdered sugar jelly donut, and of course a few munchkins. Yes. ALL of them would have been mine – all mine (cue the evil laugh).

The employee tried once last time to get me to accept the donuts, and as he explained, “Each day an enormous amount of excess food ends up in the trash.” He wanted to do some good in this world and asked me to help. I could see how upsetting this was to him, so there was only one thing I could do. I accepted the donuts. Little did I know my chance encounter would become a game changer for me to step up my compassion and do better. Here’s why.

For the past year and a half, I have thought a lot about how we, as a society, need to become better humans. The pandemic gave me time to think about who I am as a person, my passions, and interests, and where I see myself in bringing change to the world. I created the Better Humans Series: The CARE Initiative after my 2021 fellowship with the Robert N. Butler-Jack Rosenthal Age Boom Academy. The Academy, “Combatting Loneliness in Aging: Toward a 21st Century Blueprint for Societal Connectedness,” is a signature program of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center in partnership with the Columbia Journalism School. The journalism fellowship brought me tremendous insight into ageism, research on mental health, social isolation, depression, and the negative impact of the pandemic on all age groups, but it also gave me optimism and ideas when I read about intergenerational strategies that connect generations in a time of great disconnect. I wanted to be a part of a solution for societal cohesion. As usual, I began to brainstorm my ideas in a notebook, and see the possibilities for an initiative that would start in schools and continue through adulthood.

My thought was to engage students and adults about the power of connection, attention to mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health, resilience and educating ourselves on social issues and societal problems that need to be addressed early on in schools. I witnessed the power of humanity when I first spoke with artist, activist, and professor Willie Baronet. Since 1993, Baronet has been buying homeless signs that are now part of a project called “WE ARE ALL HOMELESS.” In 2014, Willie set out on a 31-day cross country trip to 24 cities, where he bought signs and interacted with so many people experiencing homelessness; this journey became the subject of the documentary Signs of Humanity, which premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival and has been accepted into numerous film festivals. Willie has exbibited these signs across the U.S. and in the UK. Here are just a few of the signs he has collected (Photo credit: Willie Baronet):

Meeting Willie was a big wake up call for me. I thought about what I could do to make an impact, and become a better human. And then suddenly, I was asked to step up and help. My nighttime donut (and now bagel) mission not only feeds families and individuals experiencing homelessness and others experiencing food insecurity but adds greater meaning and purpose to my life. Most deliveries I make now include everything from donuts, bagels, muffins, croissants to a gazillion munchkins in a variety of flavors. The best part is texting pictures to my new friend at the donut shop or the manager of the bagel store, so they can see where their kindness is making a difference. My food waste delivery gig has become a wakeup call to focus on what really matters.

Let me unpack the CARE Initiative:

CONNECTION – connecting to one another in meaningful ways, breaking down habits of disconnect (e.g., technology addictions, not being present/mindful), and interacting with people you know and don’t know (e.g., your neighbors, standing in line at the store, someone in need, etc.)

ATTENTION – attending to our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health

RESILIENCE – becoming mentally and physically strong and adaptable during challenging times

EDUCATION – becoming knowledgeable, compassionate, and empathetic, in order to deconstruct pre-existing mindsets (e.g., racism, sexism, ageism, sexual identity, homelessness etc.)

No longer do I ruminate on how big my to-do list is at the end of the night. I am focused on educating myself about food waste, homelessness, and who will benefit from the food I pick-up. I feel less focused on my own “stuff” and uplifted by what I can do for others each week. Being thoughtful to those in need has made me realize that no matter how awful a day can be, doing something nice for someone else brings perspective, gratitude, and mindfulness.

As I assist in boxing up hundreds of leftovers that would be thrown in the trash, I am privileged to make conversation with the incredibly kind-hearted employees. We talk about life, school, hobbies, and the challenges of the pandemic. I wonder how many people take the time to really connect with them on a daily basis. If they don’t, they are really missing out. Some of our conversations have been the highlight of my days, filled with unexpected stories, achievements, interests, and hobbies with some of the kindest and most compassionate people I have met in a long time.

Over the past few months, I have connected with at least seven Orange County, California organizations dedicated to feeding those in need, from single moms displaced by the pandemic to large families sharing a single room, and others experiencing hardships from the pandemic. There are some incredible non-profits throughout Orange County, California devoted to making a difference. I hope to inspire others to spread kindness, compassion, and become better humans.

Some of the greatest joys of life happen when you help someone else. When you take your terrible day and put it aside to show up for another human – a person who is struggling with something much larger than what you are going through, you can’t help but have a perspective shift. Taking a pause from your own life to focus on being a good, compassionate human not only benefits the recipient, but you as well, because you gain a perspective shift. And when you return back to focus on that life of yours, your problems or whatever it is you are tackling might not seem so heavy, because you took the time to step away and do some good in this world.

The experience of showing up for others becomes a learning moment and can reshape how you see yourself, the world around you, and how you can be a part of a solution. This holiday season and throughout the year, take time to hit pause in your life and see what you can do to show up for others. You just might be surprised by what you see and feel, and the people you will meet. Those chance encounters with complete strangers have a way of lighting up your day and bringing you the perspective and meaning you needed all along.

In the time we spend binge watching shows, scrolling on our phones, and glued to social media, we could find the time to show up for others, creating positive connections and meaningful moments that in turn improve the mental health of many people feeling isolated, part of a loneliness epidemic and disconnected. These meaningful, unexpected connections have the potential to shift our trajectory and set us out on a direction that lifts us in wonderful ways. Afterall, life is not linear and to have a meaningful, purpose-driven life is really a beautiful thing.

You might aspire to attend that prestigious school, work for a Fortune 100 company, have a fancy title next to your name, and make big bucks, but if all of that went away one day, what would you be left with?

Ask yourself these questions:

Would you be happy with yourself, and the life you created?

Do you prioritize mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health?

Do you have meaning and purpose in your life?

Are you present in your relationships and mindful?

Are you kind and compassionate?

What are you doing to be a good human?

As we approach the holidays, stay curious about life. Say ‘YES’ to those unexpected invites even though you might not want to show up. Be open to the surprises life has to offer and be a life-long learner. Instill creativity in your life and see the joy of being present to the people and experiences all around you. Think about how the CARE Initiative can apply to your own life, how you can be thoughtful to others, and create purpose and meaning in your day to day activities. Your life will begin to unfold in the most meaningful ways you never imagined.


  • Janeane Bernstein, EdD

    Journalist | Mental Health Advocate | Author


    Janeane Bernstein, Ed.D. is a journalist, mental health advocate, and radio host with KUCI 88.9fm.  She was a 2021 Age Boom Academy Fellow with the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center & Columbia Journalism. Her first book, GET THE FUNK OUT, %^&* HappensWhat to Do Next!  offers strategies and life lessons on ways to nurture self-care and resilience through life’s curveballs. Janeane speaks to students and adults about self-care, mental health, resilience, the CARE Initiative, and more. Her latest podcast & event series, OUTSIDE THE BOX, focuses on mental health and wellness for all ages. Her next book, BETTER HUMANS - What the Mental Health Pandemic Teaches Us About Humanity will be published by Post Hill Press & Simon & Schuster. | |