Disillusioned with work and feeling a nagging sense of discontent, this Londoner in his late twenties decided to take six months off. Instead of redecorating his flat or learning a new language, he chose instead to post an advert on Gumtree. Concise and anonymous, it consisted of just a few lines, simply offering help to anyone who wanted it, in whatever way they needed.
The spur of the moment decision signalled a change in his life’s direction, as over the following months, thousands of requests for help flooded into his inbox. He became known as the Free Help Guy, and has now answered dozens of requests: from tracing a long-lost father, to helping a disoriented Singaporean tourist negotiate her way around London. The project has attracted a slew of articles in the media and thousands of people have signed up to be part of the Free Help army, assisting him in his ‘missions of kindness’.
An antidote to self-serving, celebrity-fronted charity drives, the project centres around several key tenets: doing what you can for others, nurturing value which isn’t about money, seeing solutions as well as problems, and the value of anonymity rather than self promotion. And despite a swelling list of recipients, the project has taught and helped Free Help Guy more than anyone, he tells People of London.
“It was very vague really,” he says of the original online posting.
“I was curious to see what would come back. I thought I could use six months to understand what real problems real people had, rather than diving into a ready-made solution, going to work for a charity or something.”
He was amazed at how many people reached out and the variety of issues they were battling.
“This was 18 months ago and so a lot were around finding jobs, as well as the more inherently human problems like looking for love and happiness. I learned that everything I was struggling with or had struggled with, everyone else does as well. It has been an incredible, humbling experience.”
The most recent project has been with a man called Davor, who lost his wife to suicide in September. He contacted Free Help Guy a month later, explaining what had happened with heartbreaking honesty.
“The day you feared the most and did everything in your power to prevent. You shout for help, you cry, but there is no goodbye,” he wrote.
The pair teamed up on a project to try to channel Davor’s grief into some positivity, making a short film about the widespread ignorance and sense of taboo surrounding mental illness and suicide. The film is solutions-focused, linking watchers to resources as well as fundraising channels, and urges people to simply pay attention to these difficult subjects, as just one way of tackling what is a hugely complex issue.
“It was a hugely difficult encounter, but as inspiring as it was hard,” explains Free Help Guy, of the first time he met Davor.
“He is completely riddled with grief, but it has been amazing to see how pragmatic he wants to be too. It amazes me how often I come away from these experiences having been the person who’s been helped.”
So is there something special in Free Help Guy’s DNA, or does everybody have in them the potential to serve others?
“I’ve always thought that everyone has in them the ability to be ‘good’, in the same way absolutely everybody has the potential to be ‘bad’,” he says.
“I think the potential of that warm, fluffy feeling is ever-present. It’s more the extent to which we allow that in and take opportunities to step away from conventions of busyness and working. Of course there’s nothing wrong with those things, but you can do them while also helping out those around you.”
Free Help Guy is fascinated by London as a whirring, churning conflation of humanity’s rich diversity, while simultaneously being a focal point of poverty, social isolation and at-all-costs economic growth.
“It’s easy to roll your eyes and moan that no one speaks to each other, and no one makes eye contact on the tube, but I think London also has this incredible energy and potential,” he says.
“And so it’s an amazing city to be doing something like this in. With all its diversity comes diversity of opinion and thought and an incredible richness of subculture too.”
In such sprawling metropolises, projects in a similar vein to Free Help Guy – for example, the hugely popular photo blog Humans of New York – seem to capture people’s interest, perhaps because they return a focus to the individual scale.
“I think that the more people there are in a given space, the greater the tendency to simplify them: into lawyers, commuters, people who live in Hackney or whatever,” says Free Help Guy.
“And so projects which celebrate person-to-person connection and small details: that person has four toes, that person really likes lasagne or that person is experiencing this problem, are really powerful. They remind us of these small character traits which exist in everyone in wonderfully different ways.”
Free Help Guy believes we are entering a new paradigm of goodwill and collective thinking, one spearheaded by a newly-aware younger generation. What has prompted this?
“I think it partly comes down to the internet bringing an immediacy of news and opinion: it’s much easier to see, hear and feel the stories of others. I also think ours is a generation never really subjected to war or serious trauma, so there is excess capacity to put efforts toward a positive place rather than just fire fighting.”
But can something like Free Help Guy really make much of a difference? After all, for every person it helps, many more suffer alone.
Projects such as his are indicative of wider positive change, he believes, a shift fuelled by a new concept of neighbourliness.
“It pains me when you hear the older generation rolling their eyes and talking about young people being glued to their phones and not making personal, face-to-face connections anymore because I think they’re missing the point completely,” he says.
“The definition of neighbour has changed. It’s not the person living next to you: it could be a person on the other side of world perhaps: just click or two away from you.
“Our generation’s capacity to empathise and willingness to actually take action is really amazing. It inspires me every day.”
Find out more and sign up at www.thefreehelpguy.com