Random act of kindness prompts change at Pinellas transit agency
Ron Schaaf, boarding a PSTA bus in Gulfport, sparked a changes in the Pinellas County bus system's policies after he tried without success to give a driver a $20 bill to pay the fares of other passengers. LUKE JOHNSON/TRIBUNE
GULFPORT — Ron Schaaf wasn’t riding the bus last Friday when he was walking by his regular stop on 22nd Avenue South and had a spur-of-the-moment idea: Why not use the $20 bill in his pocket to pay the fares of the next 10 riders? When the bus arrived, Schaaf hopped aboard and handed the driver his money — or tried to. “I said ‘Hey, I’m not riding the bus today, but here’s $20 to cover people’s fare,’ ” said Schaaf, 43. The bewildered driver’s reaction surprised him, Schaaf said.
“He refused the gesture,” Schaaf said. “I don’t really think it was his fault, necessarily. The system wasn’t set up for it. I think he was just struck.” By design, the fare boxes on Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses do not take anything bigger than a $10 bill. Drivers don’t have access to the fare boxes to make change, and they don’t handle money themselves. Offers such as Schaaf’s aren’t common — PSTA’s community relations manager, Bob Lasher, said in a Facebook message to Schaaf it was the first time in his eight and a half years with the agency that anything like that had happened — so it’s understandable that his generosity caused some confusion. Schaaf called PSTA customer service and didn’t get an acceptable answer. So he posted a message on PSTA’s Facebook page, where he encountered Lasher. “Our director of transportation is now making sure that drivers are prepared for this scenario moving forward in hopes that such philanthropy will become more common,” Lasher wrote. “Also, our customer service lead supervisor has spoken with Mr. Schaaf and let him know why the driver wasn’t able to accept his offer and how tremendously impressed and thankful we all are for his kindness.” Within hours, Schaaf was told PSTA would be sending a memo to all of its drivers telling them how to handle such situations in the future. Fare boxes still won’t be able to accept bigger than a $10 bill; but someone wishing to pay the fares for, say, himself and the next four passengers could put that much into the box, and the driver would let the next four passengers on without paying. “I’m glad we were able to turn it around for him,” said Cyndi Ratkin-Schmitt, PSTA’s communications manager. Schaaf recently left a 25-year career as a hairstylist to pursue a biology degree at St. Petersburg College in the hope of one day teaching high school. He said he occasionally makes an effort to help strangers because he sees people who are struggling far worse than he is. That could mean giving an umbrella to someone walking in the rain or trying to buy gas for a hobbling old woman — an idea a wary cashier shot down. “I see people every day getting on that bus and struggling much worse than I do,” he said. “Wheelchairs, carting around five kids.” He was recently inspired to start giving back after getting fed up at what he sees on the news, from wars to mass shootings. The rarity of such generosity often leaves people dumbfounded. “I don’t think the reaction that bus driver had is going to go away,” said Charley Johnson, president of the Pay it Forward Foundation, a nonprofit that tries to encourage selfless acts, even if they’re small. “It’s inherent. [But] there’s something about those little acts that we’re so unaccustomed to that when something like that happens, we’re not likely to forget it.” Johnson’s organization encourages people to do things such as buy coffee for a stranger at a coffee shop or hold the door for someone. While such efforts will some day make a difference, there will always be a learning curve when someone attempts to do something nice and unexpected, he said. “I think it’s getting more common,” Johnson said. “I believe there are tens of millions, if not more, who want to do something to make the world better.” Schaaf said he doesn’t know what his next good deed — or attempt at one — will be, but he plans to keep reaching out. “I’ll know it when I see it and let it happen organically,” he said.