A June 29th StoryCorps episode reminds how strangers—recently reunited—from two completely different ways of life can exercise great mutual compassion, even to the point of it being life-changing.

Niota, Illinois sits on the banks of the Mississippi River; in July 1993, it was at risk of being flooded. In an effort to shore up levees, inmates from a prison boot camp in Greene County, Illinois were sent to help with sandbagging. That’s where then-twenty-three-year-old Greg Yance (who was serving a sentence for a drug conviction) met “The Orange Drink Lady,” Neoma Farr.

Neoma, then 43 years old and the owner of a local beauty parlor, was impressed by the inmates’ efforts to save her town. “I seen how hard you worked, like it was your home that you was trying to save,” she says in the piece. Neoma decided to do her part by feeding the inmates and serving them orange-flavored juice. “You guys were so young, and I had children your age,” Neoma relates. “And I thought about if these were my children, how would I want them treated. So, I treated you like you were mine.”

“We felt that,” Greg answers. “That was why when this town flooded, that crushed us.” He adds that he felt he’d let the town’s residents down.

Neoma knew that the flooding wasn’t Greg’s or the other inmates’ faults. “You worked your tails off!” she answers. “We had so much respect for you guys. It wasn’t like, ‘Well, if they would have worked harder or faster.’ We were all in there together.”

Greg, now a machinist in Rockford, Illinois, says that he had long wanted to return to Niota ever since his release from prison in 1993. “The flood, it just changed my life,” he says. “When we was doing all this stuff, it made us feel like we had a purpose. What I felt when I was sandbagging and helping people, that kind of compassion. I just never been in a situation that, complete strangers helping each other.”

At the time of sandbagging in 1993, Neoma and other Niota residents didn’t get to know the names of Greg or any of the other inmates. “I’m just so excited that I get to meet you as a man,” she says.” “[Y]our name is Greg. And I’m just happy to meet you.”

This touching story reinforces that familiarity erases barriers between people. And too, engaging in a joint activity provides a pathway toward familiarity. I just loved hearing that Greg felt having a “purpose” gave him the ability to interact with another human who is so different from him.

Everyone has the ability to become familiar with a person who is “different” or “Other.” The payoffs from doing so can be life-changing, just as Greg and Neoma discovered!