Look for the Helpers–or Be One!

On May first someone had a medical emergency at the Stop N Shop in Somerville, MA. Among the witnesses were two people with nurse’s training. They helped. The staff helped. The person got what they needed.

This is an active bystander situation.

The label “active bystander” is not limited to the person who does the talking, does the intervening, when someone else is confronted hostility or violence in a public place. An active bystander is anyone who acts when someone in the community needs action. Being an active bystander is consistent with what Mr. Rogers called “the helpers.”

“When I was a little boy and I would see scary things in the news, my other would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people are helping.’” – Fred Rogers

What do you need to be one of “the helpers”?

1. Willingness. Being willing to help a stranger is a choice. It comes from your sense of community, your sense of social responsibility, and your openness to do labor for someone who may never thank you or pay you back. If you are willing, your first question is: What does this person need?  

2. Ability. At any given moment, you may be more or less able to be one of the helpers.

  • Time and responsibility: If you see someone in need, do you have the freedom to spend your time to help them? When you say, “yes” to helping a stranger, you are saying, “no” to using your time the way you had planned. If you have the time to help, it is a privilege you are sharing.

 Many of us have responsibility to ourselves or other people that limit that time. If you are grocery shopping in the twenty minutes before picking up your child, you do not have a half an hour to help someone else. In that case, you may watch the situation until you see that someone else has stepped in. If you are grocery shopping before spending a quiet Sunday at home, you are more free to be the person who steps in.  

  • Skill: Some people have training that makes them particularly skilled at helping, if someone collapses in a grocery store. If you have first aid training, you can act as a first responder until more skilled professionals arrive. That help can literally be life-saving.

If you do not have first aid training, there are many active bystander activities that you can accomplish. You can provide comfort, you can be the person who calls 911, you can be the person who keeps the non-helping onlookers at a distance (providing dignity), you might be the right person to notify their family. All of these activities require people skills or knowledge about the person who is in trouble.

Your skills are not just what you learned in school. Your skills are everything you learned in life, about people and how to take care of one another. What am I skilled to do in this situation?

3. Increasing the good. What is often unrecognized is the tremendous good that can happen when the crisis is over.

  • Recognition: I heard about this incident because someone posted on Facebook about how wonderful the nurses and the staff at Stop N Shop were on that Sunday afternoon.

When someone is thanked, when someone is acknowledged, when someone feels appreciation, they are more likely to repeat their actions. Posting about the incident and its good outcome is a bystander action.

The act of showing appreciation empowers helpers to keep helping.

  • Aftercare: If someone had a medical emergency, and you know them, you can make their day by checking in a few days later. They might need tangible support. They might just benefit from being noticed. Active bystanders are active supporters. 

Can you really be one of the helpers? You already have!

One of the objections that I hear from people who think that they can’t be active bystanders is that they are not the kind of people who know the right thing to say or do. I contend that we all know how to take care of other people. We all have different skills. Some are more valuable in different crises.

Think about times in your life when a stranger returned your wallet, or someone jump-started your car, or a stranger helped told you figure something out that was baffling you in a public place. Remember that time when you just couldn’t cope, and someone lent you a hand? These are all active bystander actions. Another person could have just kept walking.

Any of these situations are happening somewhere in town, every day:

  • Medical crisis in a public place
  • Lost wallet, phone, or other valuable item
  • Lost human, wandering child or frail elder
  • Car accident or bicycle accident or trip and fall walking accident
  • Disabled car or bicycle (flat tire or other mechanical failure)

When you think you can’t be an active bystander, think about all the times that you have already been one, and promise yourself to be one again.

You might be the kind of bystander who picks up the wallet, you might be the car jump-starter, you might be the giver of directions to the befuddled person who got out of Davis Square station at the Holland Street side and was all turned around and couldn’t figure out how to find College Avenue. You might just make somebody’s day. And it might cost you next to nothing to be that person.

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