I‘m in a cafe in central London to meet a man who has just flown from the capital to Dublin. When he got there, he turned around and flew straight back again, without leaving the airport.
He didn’t need to go to Dublin. He flew there because a stranger called Tim emailed and asked him if he could help him get on a plane, purely to help him get over his crippling fear of flying.
The man said yes, because that’s what he does. Under the guise of ‘The Free Help Guy’, he offers to help anyone, with any problem, for free. And all anonymously.
The Dublin flights were not a one-off: The Free Help Guy will sit on planes with Tim for the next few months, or for as long as it takes for his fear to go away. “We figured the best way for him to get over his phobia was to simply get on planes and normalise the experience of flying as much as possible,” The Free Help Guy tells me. “It was fascinating, the first half an hour of the first flight he was a bit of a mess, but on the flight back – 45 minutes after the flight out there – he was so much better.
“He’s being really courageous by facing it, so hopefully that initial progress continues to the point where he can fly alone and on longer journeys. We’re off to Copenhagen next week for another, so we’ll see how that goes.”
Tim is just one of many people with all manner of requests that The Free Help Guy has helped since he quit his job in 2013 to try and find meaning in life “that doesn’t look like coins and notes”.
He has painted people’s houses (doing “the worst job you could imagine”), he has tracked down long lost relatives, he’s made viral videos, he’s been a test subject for an aspiring hypnotist, he’s reunited a lost memory card with the owner of the camera.
One man, Davor, had lost his wife to suicide just weeks before he contacted The Free Help Guy. Davor wanted to do something that would get people to pay attention mental health.
But The Free Help Guy thinks Davor reached out for help with his own grief, perhaps subconsciously. “I think, especially in hindsight, he was looking for someone to spend some time with who wasn’t a friend or family, someone he could get a bit kind of lost with, rather than focus on it.”
Together, they produced a clever online film which had over 125,000 YouTube views, highlighting how suicidal thoughts can be overlooked, with devastating consequences.
A man in Florida, Ivan, asked The Free Help guy if he could deliver a business presentation for him. “He’d been put in touch with investors in London and he just couldn’t justify the flight,” The Free Help Guy, who lives in South London, explains.
The story of how Ivan came to contact him was a coincidence that fuelled his belief in the value of helping a stranger.
“He told me about how he came across me, and it really sent shivers up my spine. Every morning at about six o’clock, he walks around his local park in Florida. For about seven years, every morning he’s walked past this lady. All they have ever done is say ‘Hello’, every morning.
“All he knows, from that hello, is that she was English. So, when he was trying to find someone to help him do his presentation in London, she was the only person he knew. So one morning, seven years down the line, he said ‘Hello’ as usual, and then he stopped and said “Do you know anyone in London who might be able to pitch this little business I’ve got?’ And apparently she just said ‘Try The Free Help Guy’. I don’t know how the hell she knew, but anyway.”
Sadly, as with some of his other attempts to help people, things didn’t work out as planned. He stayed up all night studying Ivor’s 60-page presentation, but the potential investors pulled out of the meeting the next day.
A girl called Margot had Leukemia, and her family asked for help finding a bone marrow donor. The Free Help guy got 70 people together for a ‘help mob’ (a helpful ‘flash mob’) and dropped flyers around a local swabbing centre. Margot found a donor, but sadly died 10 months later.
Anthony wanted to raise awareness of poor disabled access on the Tube in London
Other projects do end more happily. He’s helped Anthony (whose house he also painted) to highlight the lack of disabled access on the underground. Using Anthony’s wheelchair, they filmed a spoof version of the viral video hit ‘Race The Tube’, the day after the original came out, demonstrating the difficulties for wheelchair users on Tubes. It has clocked up over 200,000 views on YouTube, and led to a pledge from Transport for London on wheelchair access.
The Free Help Guy’s journey started with what could perhaps be called a quarter-life crisis. In 2013, he was 27, working at a design agency and commuting to London.
“You spend most of your life growing up dreaming about changing the world, or at least adding to it in some way, and then you realise that you’re on this path that’s taking you in an opposite direction,” he says.
“I just got to this weird point where I was doing things that didn’t really seem to have any kind of meaning, doing the whole commuting thing and struggling with it, and just feeling a bit lost.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was great in one sense, but I envisaged suddenly being five years down the line, and still having that sort of back-of-the head feeling that something doesn’t feel quite right.”
So, he quit.
He wanted to help people, and to do something personal, rather than using a big platform or group to volunteer. “I wanted to be more hands on, and also to have a bit of kind of freedom with it as well.”
On a whim, he posted a message on Gumtree, asking if anyone wanted any help, with anything, for free. “It was a complete punt – I had no plans at all. I thought I’ll just put an advert up, see what comes back, and if it means I’m busy for the next week, then great.”
He got “quite a few responses” within a day or two. The first was a couple in Plymouth, who had had a homeless man staying with them who had then moved out. They wanted to find someone else in need who they could offer a home to.
Gillian, travelling around Europe from Singapore, wanted help seeing London in the 10 hours she had in the city, while a photographer, Talya, was having a confidence crisis.
To support himself, he relied on savings from shares he had owned in the agency, and spent a whole six months doing nothing but being The Free Help Guy – paying for anything he needed to help people with little thought as to how what would happen once the funds ran out. “There are so many more currencies than money, there’s so many more definitions of wealth, and I just wanted to explore a value that wasn’t financial. And I also quite liked the challenge of getting to that point of being broke and the challenge that that leads to. It’s easy to want to save up, but I felt like I needed to get rid of the comfort.”
But of course, the issue of money – which he’d been trying to ignore – caught up with him.
His savings ran out, and he moved onto credit cards and “renegotiated” his rent in his friend’s flat that he shared. He was in debt. “I certainly spent a lot more in those months, being The Free Help Guy, than I’d planned,” he admits.
Helping people often cost a little more than he expected. For example, when he went to paint someone’s house. “I turned up and there wasn’t really any paint or anything, so I went out and spent a load of money on paint. I just felt like that was part of the [service] but I have no problems doing that.”
But eventually, of course, he had to take up a job again, and he now works as a freelance business consultant from home, as well as being The Free Help guy in the mornings, evenings and weekends. He tries to check new requests every morning – he gets one or two a day.
The Free Help Guy worked with Davor to get people to “pay attention” to the issue of suicide
One case, that he’s been working on for nearly a year, was “so close to being unbelievable”.
In 2014 he got an email form a guy called Mike, who lives in North Carolina. He was in his 70s, a Vietnam war veteran, with Asperger’s syndrome.
Mike had created a video outlining a touching request. “He explained that in Vietnam in the mid sixties, he fell in love with a Vietnamese lady called Mi Sun. He left Vietnam in ’65, and lost touch with her. The video was beautiful. He explained how she taught him to love, and all these things. It was really, really compelling.
“He had her name and a few bits of information, nothing more. Eventually, through this really tedious, Kevin Bacon Six Degrees Of Separation type process, we stumbled across a lady in Vietnam who knew Mi Sun, and sadly said that she’d passed away.
“But she had moved to The States, and had a half-American son. Who was born just after Mike left Vietnam.
“Everything looked to add up. I tracked the son down, found an address and phone number, and put them in touch a few weeks ago. Mike wrote a letter, but the guy came back and said I can’t be your son, I was born two years after you left. So sadly, it wasn’t him.”
Tracing lost people is a common theme, he finds. Ian’s wife got in touch asking him to find her husband’s father, who he’d not seen since childhood. “I found him but learnt he’d passed away. Hardly a happy ending but some closure, I hope.”
After a street performer dressed as a vampire was humiliated by a kid pulling his trousers down, in what became a viral video, The Free Help Guy decided to help without even being asked. He set up an Indigogo fundraising page, tracked him him down and dropped £500 cash in his hat, all “as a way for us to show this man that what happened to him that day wasn’t cool.”
A smaller project in April, ‘Jerk Aid’, organised another ‘help mob’ to visit the Ultimate Jerk Centre chicken restaurant in Brixton, which gives free food to homeless people, and pay a little extra in recognition of the eatery’s good deeds.
He does turn down requests, due to lack of time, or sometimes if they don’t fit in with his preferred criteria of being “different, non-financial” or “morally deserved.”
“I’ve had a lady who asked me if I could catch her husband cheating. I wanted to say yes, but I wanted to find out what she was looking to gain from it. In truth, she wanted evidence so that the lady who was having an affair with her husband would get sacked.”
He’s been asked to care for an “adult baby” who enjoys regressing to a child-like state and being cared for, and he’s also been asked for large sums of cash.
One strange thing he has noticed is that, after upgrading his Gumtree post to a blog, and then a slick website, he receives more and more emails which are asking for money outright, saying “I’m £4,000 in debt, can you help me by giving me £4,000?”
Would he just give someone money, who was in debt? “Definitely not,” he says, shaking his head. He can’t afford to, but also: “It’s not why I’m doing it. If I had money to spend, I’d rather spend it on helping me help more people, rather than individuals. It just feels like its exactly what the free help guy isn’t. I rarely even take on fundraising requests.”
Eden [left], her mum Trudi and her sister
A recent exception was Eden, a little girl in London who has a debilitating health problem called a ‘myoclonus diaphragmatic flutter’. The condition – so rare that she’s the only sufferer in the UK – is also known as ‘belly dancer’s syndrome’ as it makes someone’s diaphragm ‘misfire’, causing spasms throughout the whole body, preventing you from speaking, and triggering seizures.
He met Eden and her mum Trudi for a coffee, and that was immediately sucked in. “I was walking out the door I was talking to myself going ‘right: four grand, two weeks, four grand, two weeks, I need to do it’.”
Using crowdfunding, and hassling journalists for press attention, The Free Help Guy raised the £4,000 needed for flights, accommodation and initial consultations in Colorado. Eden is now in the US with her family, and “doing really well”.
“I think sometimes its just an extra person to get involved,” he explains, when I ask why Eden’s family couldn’t have crowd funded themselves. “Her family were all involved planning cake sales and all that kind of stuff. I think it was just an extra pair of hands – Trudi was taking Eden to hospital every day and spending full nights looking after her – she had no time to do it.”
His anonymity – now a key part of what he does – was accidental. He didn’t mention anything about himself in his original post (“I didn’t really think it was important”) and as the project evolved, he began to blog about the stories, but without using his name.
Being incognito has encouraged more people to reach out to him for help, he suspects. “It’s worked really well and in a really interesting way. It’s an open and easy way for people to connect. Which is kind of bizarre when you think I’m some kind of anonymous man online. That’s definitely not normally someone you could trust and be open and honest with, but I think somehow it means people can be more open than if they knew who I was.”
Beyond close friends, he tells no-one that he runs the project. Even prospective employers. Anonymity is really important to him, “Even amongst friends of friends, I don’t feel comfortable and don’t feel the need to share it.”
A publisher approached him about writing a book about his story, but stepped back when he said he wasn’t willing to do a “big reveal” at the book launch and confirm who he was for promotional events and media.
He doesn’t find it difficult not taking credit for his work, and that’s the way it will stay. “There’s no reason at all [to reveal who I am], unless I accidentally did something terrible and then needed to be accountable. I can’t see that happening, I hope.”
The Free Help Guy working
With his own business and plans for a new venture in the charity sector, he can’t answer as many requests as he used to. “I spend a lot of time not really helping but almost being a bit of a pen pal, I share links that might help them or put them in touch with people that might be able to help them.”
Having met him, The Free Help Guy seems like a refreshingly regular person: not a saint, or a martyr, but rather someone who has made the time to do something he cares about.
He doesn’t think that becoming The Free Help Guy marked any particular of moral change in him, or some sort of awakening: “I don’t think there was much of a change, really. Whoever I was and whoever I am, I was just looking for a bit of an outlet and trying in an interesting and personal way to do that.”
Trying to live without focusing on money is a noble ideal, but is it really compatible with modern life, especially in London?
“Well, ultimately, no,” he says. “But there’s definitely a balance there somewhere. Since that six months [of only being The Free Help Guy] I’ve worked really hard on a few different things, and I guess I’ve realised my ideal is to get to a point where I can spend more and more time working for free on things.
“I think people have in that assumption that London is expensive and you’ve got to focus on earning, is that it’s not completely the case for anyone. I think you can find the time.”
After our meeting, the requests will continue. He had an email that morning “from a lady in the States who’s recently lost her son, and was just looking for someone to talk to.”
“There’s another guy out in Walthamstow, a 48-year-old Indian guy, who’s looking for a girlfriend, so I’m in the process of getting to know him a bit better to try to find out what he’s looking for and why, and how I might be able to help.”
Even though it’s now something he has to fit in around his business, it’s a core part of his life. “I’ll do it forever, even if now and again it’s only for an hour a week.”
The Free Help Guy’s site – significantly evolved from his original Gumtree post – offers the option to ask for help
He remembers that first email, from the couple in Plymouth hoping to house another homeless person, fondly as “an insight into someone else’s world, someone whose doing amazing things.”
“I get a huge amount of people getting in touch on behalf of someone else who needs help, or telling me what they are doing: asking for help with their help projects. It’s really inspiring.”
He’s not religious, but agrees that altruism can take the place of spirituality in someone’s life. He believes that ultimately, everyone wants to do good in the world, and he’s just taken a step towards that goal. “I think there’s absolutely no argument that there is good in everyone. That’s not just some idealised view, I think that’s very intrinsic to our makeup.”
What’s stopping us from all being Free Help Guys, he says, is the “blur of conventional life and conventional understanding of what’s really important, like the need to earn as much wealth as you can, and all that kind of stuff.”
He’s also very open about the fact that helping other people has brought him huge benefits. It’s made him a happier person, he says. He lives with his girlfriend “who’s very supportive and a bit weirded out by it every now and again, because I do get very weird requests sometimes”.
“Don’t get me wrong – the guy I ended up working for was someone I helped. So even just helping people for free can open a financial door. Obviously that’s not my motivation, but it’s a really powerful thing to try to find ways to do things that aren’t inspired by money.”
“There’s nothing new about the value of giving to the person that gives. It’s not a particularly profound or new insight, but I think for some reason it’s the easiest thing to forget or ignore.
“And no-one can argue that when you do something that feels like it has meaning and you benefited someone else, that warm fuzzy feeling is as profound as I imagine holding your child for the first time or falling in love for the first time, it’s a seriously fulfilling human emotion, and the issue is just simply time.”
To find out more or ask for help, visit thefreehelpguy.com.
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