What kind of sacrifices have you made in this down economy? Did you loose your job? Did you scale back on your Starbucks visits? Were you not affected at all? These are the questions Aaron set out to ask when he embarked on a 4-month journey across the United States in his Dodge RAM van. Aaron was one of the casualties. He lost his job at a paint shop and after months of searching for what was next Aaron decided to do something big. Hearing about an open art project in Michigan donning a $250,000 grand prize, Aaron decided to drive there, live in his van and collect recession stories along the way. All the while, planning to donate the entire prize to the Grand Rapids Community Foundation to stimulate non-profit organizations throughout Michigan that provide economic assistance to individuals and he was going to publicly challenge at least one person from each state to match his contribution, for their respective communities. He already had a name picked out, The Man In A Van Stimulus Plan. He didn’t win the art prize but in the end gained so much more then he bargained for.

“I would hand people a Sharpie and tell them to write their story. Apprehensive at first, they would write, then step back for a moment, let out a big sigh and then turn to me and say, thank you. Just seeing the relief and deep meaning on their faces to have told their story was something I won’t forget.” Aaron also brought along a strip of waterproof Tyvek paper 50 yards long for people to write on.

What Aaron couldn’t foresee was the support he received along the way. “I had T shirts made before I left to give people a way to support my journey. Some people would just give me money and not take a shirt. There was this one time someone actually followed me into the bathroom and slipped $5 under the stall.” Aaron’s tales do not end there. In fact he’ll need a lifetime to really describe his journey, not just physically but spiritually. “It was heartwarming the emotion people would show a total stranger. Some people would talk to me for hours and I would listen.” Wanting to connect and support, people bolstered Aaron’s efforts through 30 states. Breaking down in Colorado, a mechanic fixed his van for free, wrote his story on the van and waved Aaron off to his next destination. A food bank in Georgia not only served Aaron a hot meal but the couple who owned it offered to fill his gas tank and bid him good luck. “If it wasn’t for the support of strangers, I’m not sure I would have made it. I was truly desolate at times, scared of the outcome.”

Resourceful and smart, Aaron knew what to do. Before he even left he set up a website telling people what he was doing. He called some of the news stations to spread the word of his journey. He was interviewed and followed across the states and recognized for his sacrifices. Humble in person, you get the feeling the news release was more for the people and not his fame. He wanted to make this sacrifice to connect and to give people a way to tell their story.

Meeting Aaron myself was one of the highlights of this project. He was not what I expected. Sadly I had preconceived notions of someone who would live in a van for 4 months. I was ashamed of that the moment I met him. He was well-spoken, insightful and incredibly devotional. Seeing him interact with people, who would stop immediately when seeing the van, was inspiring. His voice soft and understanding he would say, “Hi. What’s your name?” opening the door to conversation, metaphorically extending a hand. I have not talked with the people Aaron met along the way. I am sure he will touch upon that in the book he is now writing about his experience. I know for sure that my attitude is forever adjusted knowing someone like Aaron exists. Totally selfless, I think we need more people like Aaron in this world. Because sometimes we all just need a hand.

When Aaron checked in with us this year he had all kinds of good news to report. In the 8 years since I interviewed Aaron, he moved back to his hometown of Oregon, met and married a beautiful woman named Jenn and had an adorable baby girl they call Rose. His smile is a mile wide on his Facebook page where he describes himself as ‘an artist, woodworker, framer, art handler, husband and Papa Bear.’ His ‘Man in the Van’ book has been shelved for now as he’s currently pursuing a dream of making a large scale spherical painting. I’m sure this is not the last we’ve heard of Aaron’s art projects.

A few more …

About the currency project

The Currency Project challenges us all to see the beauty through the pain, the positive that can come from a negative and the heartbreak that can turn into a new beginning. Life is uncertain but our faith, hope and love can never be taken from us. Our true currency in life is what we make it.