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Forty years ago, a young couple lobbed a rock of altruism and hope into the middle of the pond that is Humboldt County. Decades later, the ripples from Joe Abbott and Ann Morrissey's actions in 1977 continue to reverberate, having grown into something beyond their wildest youthful imaginations.

They started small. In this week's cover story, you'll read about how they grew frustrated with the garbage and environmental degradation they were seeing near their Manila home. But where many just saw the kind of sprawling community problem that can inspire hopelessness, they saw an opportunity to make a difference. They started taking trash bags with them on their regular walks and picking up what they could. Then one night they applied for a grant for federal funding, offering a direct response to a pressing need. From that grant application decades ago grew first a small, three-person beach cleaning detail run through the Northcoast Environmental Center, then the NEC's Adopt-a-Beach program, then a statewide beach cleanup day and finally International Coastal Cleanup Day — a global event that sees millions of volunteers across continents band together to rid beaches, rivers and waterways of litter.

It's a remarkable example of the power of a humble, intensely local act of altruism — an example we'd all do well to heed these days.

In the current political and media environment, it's easy to be enveloped by a feeling of helplessness. So many of the world's problems seem so big and insurmountable and ever present. Our news feeds and social media accounts bombard us minute-by-minute with information about partisan gridlock, scandal and controversy. And the truth is, most of us here in Humboldt County have little hope of guiding the outcome of the Russia investigation, determining whether Brett Kavanaugh is granted a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court or immigrant children are reunited with their families. We can — and should — write letters and call members of Congress to make our views known, and we should definitely vote in every election, but it's easy to feel disillusioned and helpless.

But in our own homes, streets, neighborhoods and communities, we can do far more.

Our community is filled with examples of people who saw an immediate need and did something about it, only to have a singular act of doing what's right on a small scale blossom into something much larger.

Decades ago local philanthropist Betty Chinn saw a homeless family sleeping in a car and decided to start bringing them food. Today, she runs a homeless day center, a family shelter and a transitional housing community. In 2001, local insurance agent Paul Nicholson's son saw him critically injured after falling off a cement truck. Nicholson learned that his son didn't know what to do in the case of an emergency. Today, Nicholson volunteers his time visiting dozens of classrooms every year to teach thousands of children throughout Humboldt County when and how to call 911. The Vietnam War left Eric Hollenbeck scarred but he's found healing in opening a school for at-risk youth and a program for war veterans.

And for every story like these — and Abbott's — there are scores of people who donate their time to help a neighbor, volunteer in a local classroom or are simply the rock upon which their neighborhood leans amid hard times.

Stories like these are important because they show the vast power each and every one of us has to impact the world around us, if not in Washington, D.C., then next door. They are a good reminder that we should all spend a little less time obsessing about the latest national scandal and a little more talking to our neighbors, volunteering to help and providing a direct response to an immediate need.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies of the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. ... We need not wait to see what others do."

The truth is that for all its wonders, Humboldt County is filled with problems, from littered public spaces to an addiction epidemic that continues to crush lives and crumble families, impacting just about every aspect of local life. We'd all do well to follow Abbott's lead, pick a problem and do something about it.

If we did, there's no telling where the ripples might reach.

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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