WARNER ROBINS -- Wherever he goes, Donnie Powell has tiny feet and little heads sticking out of his vest pockets.
They belong to stuffed bears, frogs, dogs, cats, cows, kangaroos, storks, pigs, dragons and an occasional duckbill platypus. They come in shades of blue, green, pink, yellow and every other color in the crayon box.
He rarely leaves home without them. He hardly ever brings them back.
They find their way into the hands of 3-year-old kids at day cares and the hearts of 96-year-old women pushing their buggies across parking lots. He has passed them out to hospice patients, Girl Scout troops and cashiers at the drug store. He has left them in booths at restaurants, waiting rooms and the drive-thru window at Burger King.
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It has become a ministry.
“God uses all of us in various ways,” he said. “Five years ago, I could have never imagined myself doing something like this. Now, I can’t imagine myself not doing it.”
I first met Donnie eight years ago. He was handing out wooden nickels as a way of thanking military veterans for their service. It continues to be an ongoing project for him. He has given away more than 8,000 wooden tokens since May 2005. He also places small flags at churches and cemeteries for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Veterans Day and at military funerals.
Donnie is a yard sale junkie. He is up by the dawn’s early light on Saturday mornings. His fingers are a divining rod for bargains all over town.
A few years ago, he began buying small stuffed animals for his two “grand-darlings,” Rylee and Haven Hancock. He would search at garage sales, flea markets and thrift stores, often trying to get the price down around 50 cents apiece. He would go online and bid for them on eBay.
Soon, he had enough critters made of polyester fiber and filled with plastic pellets to start a miniature zoo. He would run them through a wash cycle before sending them out into the world.
On each, he placed a tag: “Hello. Please take me with you. (I am free.) Do some small good deed, perhaps to honor or remember someone (such as your parents, teachers, etc.) and pass me on to someone else (stranger or friend) who will hopefully continue the good deeds. (Feel free to keep me or give me to someone, such as a child). I have been through a washer/dryer. Thank you. (I started in Warner Robins, Ga.)”
He has been “bumping into” folks ever since, performing random acts of “findness.” A year ago, he started counting the number he has given away. He now puts the estimate at about 3,000.
(Donnie and his wife, Delores, have sent so many baby bears through the rinse cycle that they have had to replace both their washer and dryer.)
He has passed them on to families who visit the food bank at his church, Trinity United Methodist in Warner Robins. He has shipped them off to summer camps and children’s homes.
Last spring, he mailed a stuffed animal to the governors of all 50 states, with the same instructions to do a good deed. He received replies from 10, including Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, sent a note to thank him in the weeks after the deadly tornadoes in her state.
Sure, there are those who cast a suspicious eye. They are wary of a man with a bag of Beanie Babies. They want to know if he is trying to sell them something.
For the record, Donnie gets paid in smiles, warm fuzzies and all those who promise to “pay it forward.”
“The stuffed animals were new and prized, then discarded ... at the bottom of a box until they were bought for a small amount,” he said. “Then they face a rough and tumble washing machine and dryer which prepare them for their new mission, in which they are valued again.”
He once told his preacher there had to be a parable in there somewhere.
There certainly was a sermon last October when he ran into a former co-worker in the checkout line at Wal-Mart. They had not seen each other since they retired from their civil service jobs at Robins Air Force Base.
“I gave her a stuffed bear, saying my usual to do a good deed and pass it on or keep it for herself,” Donnie said. “She turned to me with tears in her eyes. She told me her youngest son had died one year ago that day. She said God had sent me to help her that day. We hugged and she thanked me. She had only one item to buy -- a fall flower arrangement for the cemetery.”
It was one of those times when he realized why he lets those tiny creatures live in his pockets.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.