Put yourself in 8-year-old Abbie Jacobson’s place.
You’re walking into Sam’s Club in Scarborough when you spot something unusual on the ground.
It’s a small, green money purse. Scattered around it are several $100 bills. Inside the purse, you find several pieces of heirloom gold jewelry, a debit card and a large wad of $100 bills rolled up tightly and secured with a rubber band.
Your first thought?
While you ponder that one, here’s Abbie’s:
“We need to find who dropped it,” recalled the soon-to-be third-grader from Scarborough this week. “Because I wouldn’t want to lose all that money and have someone take it. It was a lot of money!”
Now put yourself in Ra Rim’s place.
You came to Maine from Cambodia just less than two years ago. You speak no English and are about to travel back to your homeland to visit relatives when your savings for the journey – $4,202, to be exact – vanish during a day of last-minute errands.
“I felt like I was going to faint,” said Ra in Cambodian while her daughter, Chansatha Meas, translated. “I felt like there was no hope I would ever get it back.”
It happened in the spring. You’re reading about it now because Rosemarie De Angelis, who teaches English to immigrant students (including Chansatha) at Southern Maine Community College, correctly pegged it in an email last week as “a great story about the good in people – in a time when that feels rare.”
For the Jacobsons – parents John and Jenn with Abbie in tow – it began as a routine trip to Sam’s. Jenn was already in the store while Abbie and her father parked the car and hurried to catch up.
That’s when Abbie looked down at the sidewalk just outside the store’s entrance and spotted the little green purse overflowing with cash. More cash than Abbie had ever seen.
A stroke of pure luck? A slush fund for the mall? Not in Abbie’s world.
“She never asked if we could keep it – not even just in passing,” recalled John. “It was all about, ‘Whose is it? Where are they? How can we find them?’ “
Added Abbie, “I just felt sad for the people who lost it.”
John looked inside the purse, which also contained a small cache of Cambodian currency, and saw the debit card from University Credit Union bearing the name “Ra Rim.”
Rushing into the store, Abbie and John quickly found Jenn and told her what had happened. Abbie then made a beeline for a young Cambodian man she’d noticed entering Sam’s just ahead of them.
He was Ra’s son, Titya. Unfortunately, Titya wasn’t with his mother at the time and, because he speaks no English, had no clue what this frantic American family was talking about as they asked if he knew anyone who may have lost a ton of money.
(Ra would not realize until she got home later than evening that somewhere in her travels – she wasn’t sure where – she’d dropped the purse while putting it back in a money belt she wore under her blouse.)
So there stood Abbie, John and Jenn with $4,000-plus in cold, untraceable cash and … not even a twinge of temptation?
“I spent it 30 times over in about 10 seconds,” admitted Jenn with a chuckle.
“Hey, we’re human like everyone else,” echoed John, a landscape architect for Harriman in Portland.
It would have been so easy to just pocket the money – the Jacobsons have had their share of medical issues recently and the bills have piled up. But to appreciate how far that would diverge from this family’s moral compass, consider how Abbie processed this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“She never wondered, even in fantasy, what she or we would do with the money if we kept it,” said John. “It just never crossed her mind.”
Instead, they called the Scarborough Police Department. And when the cruiser arrived a few minutes later, the Jacobsons dutifully handed over the small fortune without so much as giving the officer their names.
Maine law says that if such a bonanza goes unclaimed for six months, the finder is entitled to half. (The other half goes to the town in which the loss occurred.)
But that night, it wasn’t the legal timetable for finders/keepers that preoccupied the Jacobsons. Rather, they found themselves fixated on the losers/weepers.
“We were all sick to our stomachs that somebody had lost so much,” said Jenn. “I couldn’t sleep – I was up all night.”
Added Abbie, “I was worried.”
First thing the next morning, Jenn called the University Credit Union. She told the manager what had happened and left her number with the request that Ra Rim, whoever she was, please call her.
The credit union called Chansatha, the contact person for her mother’s account. Chansatha then called Jenn and, by day’s end, Scarborough police had reunited Ra and her husband, San Meas, with their money and jewelry.
End of story? Actually, it was only the beginning.
The next day, just before Ra and San left on their on-again … off-again … on-again trip to Cambodia, the two families met for lunch at the Minami Japanese Grill in South Portland. The moment Ra laid eyes on Abbie, she burst into tears and wrapped the little girl in a long, grateful hug.
Over lunch, San and Ra told the Jacobsons how their daughter Chansatha, 29, came here six years ago to study nursing because the family couldn’t afford the requisite bribes for entry to nursing school in Cambodia.
The Jacobsons also learned how San and Ra, who immigrated to Maine with their son in 2010, survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge: San, himself a nurse, and Ra, with her newborn daughter (Chansatha’s oldest sister) on her hip, were forced to do hard labor in a work camp from 1975 to 1979.
“I almost died,” said San, who now packs sea urchins for Samaki Seafood Inc. in Scarborough.
Last week, the two families met again for dinner. This time, Ra recalled that wherever she went during her trip to Cambodia, she’d pull out the small school photo that Abbie gave her and tell her family and friends it was “my angel Abbie.”
San, meanwhile, divulged to the Jacobsons that he’s using American children’s books to help teach himself English. Jenn promised a box of Abbie’s old favorites to help him along.
“It changes your whole perspective – and in that way, I think they’ve given to us,” noted John. “Their stories have encouraged us to reflect on how good we have it.”
Better still, two families from two very different worlds are now friends for life – all thanks to a little girl who happened upon a nightmare in progress and demanded a happy ending.
(For anyone interested in making it even happier, Abbie wouldn’t mind seeing Justin Bieber when he plays the TD Garden in Boston on Nov. 10.)
Holding up his wife’s money purse, San smiled. It no longer contains all those $100 bills, yet it’s more valuable than ever.
“I will keep this purse as a memory of her,” San said, trading smiles with a bashful Abbie. “Even though there is no money in it anymore, the memory of Abbie will always be inside.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: