Alva James-Johnson: Good timing always pays

March 13, 2014 

Timing is everything. That's what I've learned working as a reporter for 20-something years.

You have no idea where you will find the next scoop. Sometimes you just have to be at the right place at the right time, even if it's by accident.

Once, while covering a flood in Haiti, I unwittingly wandered into a United Nations compound and learned a baby had just been born. After days of trying to mitigate the mounting death toll, U.N. workers were ecstatic about the miraculous birth. And I arrived just in time to break the international story.

On another occasion, I was in Brooklyn, N.Y., investigating the whereabouts of a suspect wanted in connection with the murder of a police officer. After fruitless attempts to get information from neighbors, I decided to try the police station as a last resort. I arrived just in time to witness the suspect being released from questioning. As he bolted from the building, I followed and got an exclusive interview. If I had arrived 10 minutes later, I would've never got the story.

So it didn't surprise me last week when I found myself in the middle of another serendipitous situation.

I was working on a crime-related story in the neighborhood surrounding the Elizabeth Canty public housing complex. When I got to the complex, I stopped at the community center and rang the doorbell. Manager Karen Sumbry turned the key and graciously let me in, even though I didn't have an appointment.

What I didn't realize was that there were two people right behind me. Sumbry saw them coming and reopened the door. Standing in the doorway was one of Sumbry's Farley Home residents and a man holding a huge gift basket filled with scented lotions, soaps and other toiletries. The man said he and his mother wanted to thank Sumbry for being such a compassionate property manager.

Sumbry immediately broke into tears and could hardly speak. She just kept asking, "Why? Why did you do this?"

The woman hugged Sumbry and answered: "Because you've been so good to us, and we just love you."

While they both cried, I stood there like a wallflower.

Then Sumbry turned to me and asked if I was part of the whole set up. She thought I might have come to do a story about the act of kindness.

While I would've loved to have said, "Yes," I had to confess that I just happened to be there. We both marveled at the timing.

Since then, I've wondered why I was there at that moment? I had gone to the complex to gather information for a crime-related story, but maybe there was some greater purpose.

Driving by a public housing complex like Elizabeth Canty, it's easy to make assumptions about the people who live there. But as Sumbry and I talked later, she explained that there's more to public housing than what people see in the news. She said two weeks ago she received a gift from an Elizabeth Canty resident who encouraged her to take care of herself.

"A lot of people think this is just a slum with poor people," Sumbry said. "But there are really good people here."

Sumbry didn't try to sugarcoat problems that exist in the area, which sits a couple of blocks from the notorious Majestic nightclub where a Columbus State University student was murdered last year.

She acknowledged generational poverty, which leads to crime and other issues. But what outsiders don't see when they drive by public housing, Sumbry said, is what exists beyond the stereotypes -- nice people like the resident who brought her a gift basket just to say thanks.

Sumbry has a point, and I'm glad I was there to witness the occasion.

Good timing, I was reminded, always pays.

Alva James-Johnson, reporter, ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.com.

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