London - He has dark hair, is in his late 20s, and, by weird coincidence, has a sister who used to date one of my colleagues, but that's all I can reveal about the man sipping mint tea at a café in west London. Only a close circle of family and friends knows the identity of his superhero alter ego, who, from behind a smiley-face mask of kindness, has quietly tapped the power of social media to do good for goodness's sake. He has no cape, no dastardly nemesis, nor even a catchy pseudonym. He is, simply… the Free Help Guy.
It started with a whimsical posting on Gumtree, the popular listings website more commonly filled with sofas for sale. Guy (we'll call him Guy) found himself with six months to kill between jobs, and some savings from his previous job to live on. “I'd love to have gone travelling but that wouldn't have been particularly popular with my girlfriend so I decided to make a difference here,” he says. “I posted an advert one Friday afternoon after a week of watching Breaking Bad and not doing much else. It said, if anyone needs any help, I was there.”
Guy says he didn't expect that “some anonymous guy offering something vague would get any response, but I got this huge influx of emails”. Six months later, he has received more than 1 000 requests. He has helped a lonely tourist to find her way around London, a son to search for his long-lost father, several people to find jobs, a man to find a date, a fellow do-gooder to find the owner of a lost camera memory card, a man to do some DIY, a teenager to get a ticket to a One Direction gig, a Big Issue vendor to boost his sales, a couple to look for a homeless person who might like to use their spare room, and a man with brain cancer to win a special entry to an Ironman race in Hawaii.
“I quickly realised that this could be a way to access amazing human stories,” he says. “Just to dip into things that are utterly inspiring. If they're not inspiring, they'll be challenging, and if they are, I would just learn a huge amount from it.”
Many of the requests came from people who wanted help to help others. Guy has since realised the potential in linking them. “I feel like there's scope to connect the goodwill that exists in everybody in a creative and different way that's really engaging,” he says. Last month, he launched Free Help People, a fledgling community of givers. In the first of what Guy hopes will be monthly fundraising campaigns, he wants to help people to see. He has teamed up with the Sightsavers charity and Josie Easton, an artist who “paints” with her fingerprints. Each £10 (about R150) pledge buys an eye operation in the developing world, as well as one of the 2 000 fingerprints needed to make a close-up image of an eye. The “Eye for an Eye” campaign ends this Thursday night, when the painting will be auctioned to add to the fund.
Guy says his anonymity has appealed to a new generation for whom communicating via a keypad and blank text box is the norm. “There have been a lot of sad emails from teenage girls, some of them heartbreaking. They feel like their world is ending but what made me sad was that they would reach out to me, an anonymous guy online that they would spend 30 minutes writing to about their problems. But a generation below me grew up with this kind of access to the internet.” Early on, charities contacted Guy to ask that he refer to them any troubled correspondents, many of whom say they are struggling with eating problems. He now replies supportively and includes the relevant phone number or web address.
An early, more light-hearted request came from Gillian, a young tourist from Singapore who wanted some tips for things to do during a one-day solo visit to London. Rather than reply with a list of sights, Guy devised a treasure hunt. He posted her a travelcard and then, on the morning of her arrival, tweeted the first in a series of eight riddles, each of which needed to be cracked before the next one arrived. He urged his followers to help to solve them, also providing Gillian with virtual company.
The first clue read: “Fancy a cuppa at Moon Nuts Farm?” Gillian's new Twitter friends quickly unscrambled the anagram of Fortnum & Mason, the historic food emporium, which responded in favour of Gillian's imminent visit for tea via its own Twitter account. The final clue directed her to a pub where her guide dispensed with his anonymity for one night only to buy her a drink.
Guy has a background in digital marketing, it comes as no surprise to hear, but he is no pioneer in the field of organised help for strangers, on- or offline. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation started life in 1995 in response to a spike in gang violence in Denver, Colorado. Now part of the World Kindness Movement, it promotes selfless acts everywhere and is increasingly wise to digital strategies. Meanwhile, the annual Good Deeds Day has grown to involve hundreds of companies and organisations in more than 30 countries every March.
Last year, Judith O'Reilly, the author of the best-selling Wife in the North, published A Year of Doing Good, her account of 365 consecutive daily good deeds. She was open about her secondary motivation - to feel better about herself - and Guy, too, says there's a lot for him in his project. “I was fairly upfront that it was about being selfish, in a way,” he says. “I wouldn't call this altruism because I think I've got more out of this than anyone else.”
His deeds got personal when he received an email from a woman in California a few days after he was interviewed on an American radio show. She wanted help in finding her husband's father, an Englishman for whom she could provide only a name and approximate age. Guy was drawn to the search by his own experience. “My old man was really ill for most of my life, from when I was about seven,” he says. “He drank himself silly and I lost him for 15 years.” Guy's father had his last drink two years ago, and the pair are now on good terms.
Guy threw himself into the search, exhausting Google and family-tree websites until, at 2am while lying in bed with his laptop, he found his man. “I was utterly ecstatic and immediately felt that father-son thing,” he recalls. “But then, probably only a few seconds later, I was looking at his death certificate. I had to tell someone I'd never met that their dad had died.”
The woman and her husband were appreciative nonetheless. Guy says he has been struck by the reactions of those he has had the time and resources to help. “People always want to pay,” he says. “Either that or it's offers of support.” Ultimately, his project has been an experiment, revealing much about the times we live in. Guy says the most common among the hundreds of requests he receives come from those seeking work (that and One Direction tickets). “I'd be really intrigued to know how something like this would have gone down five years ago,” he says. “I think there's a lot of thinking that, at times like now, when things are tough, you tend to connect a little bit more with people on a more human level.”
To find out more about the project, visit thefreehelpguy.com or support the Eye for an Eye campaign at igg.me/at/aneyeforaneye - The Independent