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Video: He captures U.S. with a brush

TODAY contributor
updated 1/2/2008 11:31:13 AM ET 2008-01-02T16:31:13

Few of us willingly go out beyond the limits of our settled lives. Certainly, most would be reluctant to do what Jim Mott does. The successful, middle-aged artist travels the country trading paintings for hospitality. Stays with total strangers. Scary, you say? 

We found Jim Mott wandering through a fading afternoon in Wisconsin last fall. A shy man. Quiet. Not the kind you would expect could travel through life on his wits and a paintbrush, but he has managed to safely explore 29 states, 15 thousand miles, so far. Cost him nothing but gas. 

Along the way he's experienced some things the comfortable majority will never feel.  Met people who seem content. Happy to share their hospitality. Open their homes to him. 

We are a giving people. We do stories about that all the time, but rarely do we report about what the world gives to us. And that is just as important.

Mott’s quest reminds me of a story I did in Newfoundland, Canada, where unemployment in some villages hovers as high as 50 percent. 

But that remote island in the North Atlantic — Canada's poorest province — set a mark for giving to us, worthy of the history books.

It began on September 11, 2001, after the attack on the World Trade Center. Pilots flying from Europe were told to put their planes on the ground as soon as possible. 

Thirty-eight jets — with more than 6,000 passengers — ended up in Gander, Newfoundland.

School bus drivers were on strike back then, but they left their picket lines and worked 24 hours straight to take the stranded travelers to nearby towns.

Passengers thought they were being dropped off at the end of the earth, but they couldn't have been made to feel more at home. Churches took in those who could not find hotel rooms. Travelers, anxious to know about events, found ... they had a television set. They had actually put cable wherever the passengers were going to be.

The tiny coastal town of Lewisporte canceled classes, so their visitors could use school computers to send messages home.

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Since luggage was still locked on the planes, passengers were given coins to wash their clothes at the Laundromat.

Those who needed prescriptions were taken to pharmacies for free medicine, while townspeople worked through the night, baking them fresh bread.

Seventy-six people slept in church pews.

One couple — honeymooners — got the choir loft all to themselves. 

"If the passengers had simply stayed in that church until their planes were ready to leave, there wouldn't be much of a story (lots of towns help in times of crisis). 

But the people of Lewisporte pulled the travelers out; took them around the bay in their boats, then invited them into their homes.

Susan and Trevor Tetford took in two New York City couples with babies.

Trevor tossed his keys to a total stranger and told him to take a tour.

They became close friends, even though they were together only three days during that terrible week in September.

When their Delta flight was finally able to leave Newfoundland, passengers passed the hat.  Two hundred and eighteen ordinary people pledged $35,000 to start a scholarship fund for Lewisporte's children.

One fourth of the children who start school in Lewisporte do not graduate high school. So, the money will be used as an incentive — awarded not just to a star student or two — but divided among every senior who makes straight A's. 

All this happened just because some people in a faraway place were kind to strangers — and those strangers happened to be Americans.

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