Standing outside Slick Willie’s in Austin, Texas, Ron Hornbaker heard a man nearby muttering about low blood sugar.
Hornbaker felt in his pocket the weight of a Butterfly Coin, part of a project he had just started. He approached the man, talked with him for a bit and handed him a $20 bill as well as the coin.
“I said, ‘Get yourself something to eat, and by the way: this coin is special,’ ” Hornbaker said, “ ‘It belongs to you now, but you need to pass it on with your own act of kindness.’ ”
A week later, in early December, he got an alert that the coin had a new online story entry, from someone else who received $100 and the coin from a “li’l old man” near another address in Austin.
“It skipped probably from the guy he gave it to at a homeless shelter,” Hornbaker said. “We never know who is gonna leave the note. It might make several stops in between, but when they do we can see it on the map. We see the story. So that coin’s had a fairly interesting life.”
Hornbaker started the Butterfly Coins project with Bruce Pedersen, of Sandpoint. The two were roommates in college at Kansas State University and have hatched a number of projects over the years, including one called BookCrossing that tracks books as people pass them to others.
But Pedersen, a veterinarian who owns and operates a bed and breakfast in Sandpoint with his wife, Heather, wanted their next project to cast a wide net – one that is without boundary.
“The original intent was to give the coin with kindness, to encourage people to pay it forward, to show that we’re all in this together,” Pedersen said.
The idea is this: You buy a coin. You carry it with you. And Pedersen and Hornbaker hope that when you see a way to show kindness to others, you do so and you give them the coin, with the charge of doing something kind to someone else.
The coin has a code on it so users can track it, add stories to it online and see where it has been.
“Bruce had a physical token in mind, like a poker chip or coin, but wasn’t sure about the message that should be on it,” Hornbaker said. “We came down to kindness. That’s something that’s universal and something we could feel really good about spending time on … I like to spend time on things that make me feel good and that make other people feel good.”
Already the project has sold out of the first run of 5,000 coins, and the stories are starting to flow into the website.
And the project already has taken its own direction.
People are giving coins to commemorate birthdays or lifetime achievements of a sort, a lifetime of kind acts. Others are giving them when they receive kindness from a stranger.
One went to a particularly patient employee at a busy restaurant. Another to memorialize a mother who had just died – someone who loved butterflies. And others have been given to recognize someone’s loyalty and friendship.
“It continues to evolve in ways we didn’t even imagine,” he said.
Jody Fritz ended up with the coin (and a gift certificate to another local business) from a client. Fritz, from Sagle, Idaho, works at Headlines Salon in Sandpoint.
“I’ve done her nails for maybe a year now,” Fritz said. “She said she had something for me. She felt that I would do well with it.”
Fritz did more research on the project and really likes the idea of it.
“It’s awesome. The coin has been in my drawer. It’s sitting here. I’m waiting for the right moment,” she said.
Hornbaker said they wanted the coins to have a real heft to them precisely so people would be aware of them physically when they had them, and thus more likely to be looking out for others they could help or pass the coins on to.
The first-edition coins are sturdy, made of brass and emblazoned with a blue butterfly on one side. On the back is a code so that people can add their stories to the coin’s history.
Pedersen said they have 15,000 second-edition coins coming in the next week or two. They cost $6.95 each or slightly less if bought in greater quantities. They are 2 inches in diameter and weigh 2 ounces.
They are made to last.
“Hopefully they last decades if not centuries,” Hornbaker said. “And it will keep traveling. I don’t think someone will throw something like that away.”
Troy Greenwood first got word of the idea while in Butte during the Crested Butte Film Festival in late September.
“I sort of randomly sat down next to Ron (Hornbaker) at a party, and he pulled out his phone,” Greenwood said, and showed him a picture of the coin. “He told me the idea about the coins and what they were and my initial reaction was, is anyone doing a documentary on this?”
It turns out now Greenwood is, and he was in Austin for the launch after Thanksgiving.
What interests Greenwood is the stories that could come out of it as the coins travel, potentially even making the idea into a series of episodes, one for each coin.
“All these different ways that they could go, and it would be interesting to see the multitude of ways it has been used and to meet people who have done creative or interesting things with the coins,” Greenwood said.
Pedersen and Hornbaker are eager to see that, too.
“When you have a good idea you become a steward of it,” Pedersen said, “and just to continue to let it grow and see where it wants to go.”
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