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Sean Kirst: UB grad's random act of kindness brings glow to memorable homecoming

Naniette Coleman had a memorable homecoming last weekend at the University at Buffalo.

"To say this place made me who I am is an understatement," said Coleman, a 2002 UB graduate who is studying for her Ph.D in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Coleman returns as often as she can. Still, this visit had particular meaning: She came back to serve as the interviewer in Saturday's Distinguished Speakers Series conversation with actor and activist Jesse Williams, well-known for his role as Dr. Jackson Avery in television's "Grey's Anatomy."

Thousands of spectators showed up at Alumni Arena to watch Coleman and Williams engage in a back-and-forth about Williams' "beliefs and motivations," Coleman said. They took occasional questions from the audience, but Coleman - who served as the first African-American president of the Student Government Association at UB - said her initial nerves dissolved amid what felt like an intensely honest and passionate discussion.

"He was amazing," she said of Williams, "just a brilliant man."

She also returned to touch base on the status of a "Random Acts of Kindness Fund" she helped establish at UB, a fund that she said was inspired by a friend she knew when she was a freshman. The young man's name was Nick, and she recalled eating lunch with him one day, how he explained that his mother had cancer and he didn't know how he could stay in school.

Then he vanished from campus.

Coleman, 39, didn't see him again. She had no chance to say goodbye and was haunted by his departure. To her, it reinforced the idea of how easily everyday difficulties can sometimes overwhelm students at a fragile point in life, even if they dream of earning their degrees.

The "Kindness" fund was a result, she said. Each year, it provides 40 students in urgent need of a relatively small amount of money with $400 for, say, a plane ticket to visit an ailing parent, or a laptop when someone's breaks down during exams, or for whatever sudden problem these students might have, without enough cash to resolve it.

Still, no one in Buffalo heard about Coleman's own quiet act of kindness, a sudden choice she made a few weeks ago in California.

Naniette Coleman with actor and activist Jesse Williams at the University at Buffalo distinguished speaker series Saturday at Alumni Arena. (Photo courtesy Naniette Coleman)

She was driving home one night from teaching at Berkeley when she noticed a woman standing on a corner in what Coleman described as a "gritty neighborhood." The woman was wearing a blue polka dot hat and a saggy shirt and somehow, in some way, Coleman got a feeling the woman wasn't safe.

She pulled up next to the woman and asked if she was OK.

"Lost," the woman responded.

Coleman offered to call the police, and the woman said no. But it was clear the woman had been born with developmental disabilities, and was completely vulnerable. Coleman persuaded her to sit in her car while she promised to call for help.

Coleman pulled out her phone. She called 911, and relieved dispatchers told her the woman had been reported missing. A police spokesman said last week that Coleman was the second caller to report seeing the woman on the corner - but the first driver who pulled over to help.

"She was a beautiful, kind spirit," Coleman said of the woman, "but maybe she had some kind of wanderlust."

Before long, a patrol car arrived driven by this "giant of an officer," Coleman said, an officer who must have stood about 6-foot-5.

"You found her," he exclaimed.

The officer's emotion told Coleman that he was familiar with the woman, and then he wrapped up Coleman in a spontaneous hug.

They both understood. The woman had strayed into a place where she was at high risk.

So Coleman was back in Buffalo last week, interviewing a film and television star and speaking to students, but the story about Eva underlines an understanding that was reinforced in college:

"If you stop and really see someone," she said, "it doesn't take much to completely turn an experience around."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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