Watching the documentary A PEBBLE IN THE POND, available on DVD, VOD and Amazon Prime, the weekend of the Met Gala could not have made for a more striking contrast. While the Gala spotlighted fashionable celebrities showing off one-of-a-kind frocks, this documentary starts by showcasing the charitable Assistance League providing clothing to struggling families who can’t even afford new shoes. Yet despite such hard-knock life examples, this documentary from filmmaker Paul Howard is hardly depressing. Instead, it’s wholly inspiring in its showcasing of how the League makes huge differences in the lives of so many in need. It’s a sunny and incredible story of altruism, a bright light in our dark times.
Howard starts off his film with Ann Benson, the creator of the Ask Ann docuseries. She is to be our guide and conduit, shepherding us through the understanding of all aspects of the century-old Assistance League and the great work it is doing. Benson’s discoveries are ours, starting with an event called Operation School Bell taking place right outside Universal Studios in Hollywood a few years back. There we see hundreds upon hundreds of clothing items and school supplies being handed to needy families unable to afford such things as the new school year approaches.
And at the event, not only does the League offer such items to those who need them totally free of charge, but the clothing is stocked and presently neatly for the families, showing loving care and respect for those beleaguered, eliminating any sense of shame for them. The League not only wants to help but they strive to ensure that those they’re helping are never robbed of their dignity. Howard shows those being assisted to be good people, hard-working and contributing to society, but still need a lift up. And after the pandemic, stagnating wages, and rampant inflation on display for some time now, who couldn’t relate? There but for the grace of God go any of us.
Seeing such care from the League almost feels miraculous, especially in our current times where division, tribalism, and self-centeredness dominate so much of the public discourse. But the League rejects such negativity and always has, starting at a time when a lot of despair dominated America. In 1906, San Francisco experienced the great earthquake of 1906, killing or injuring hundreds of thousands and leaving as many homeless and starving. Resident Anne Banning witnessed it all firsthand and started the League to help, and Howard’s documentary weaves the chapters of her life throughout his film vis a vis clever, animated pieces that are as entertaining as they are educational.
Eight different animation houses contribute to such chapters, showcasing Banning’s commitment to helping throughout the 20th century, no matter what trying events occurred. Even during world wars, Banning never lost faith in her fellow man or in her calling to help those less fortunate. In fact, as those who felt the same way joined the League, they formed a motto – “People love to help others and are happy to serve.”
Throughout the documentary, both Benson and voice-over Karis Campbell describe the scenes of altruism with just the right mix of warmth and enthusiasm. As does Howard showing numerous examples of the League in action, but he never makes any of it feel strident or overly righteous. Instead, he gets compelling firsthand testimony from multiple people involved with the League, and as they tell their stories, the joy they’ve spread causes them to tear up. Don’t be surprised if you do too. It’s very moving.
Sure, the documentary can almost feel like an infomercial for the League, but the charity’s story is an incredible one, worth telling, and worth applauding. And the fact that 125 years on, the Assistance League is not only still here, but boasting over 100 chapters across the nation, is monumental. Truly, a pebble in the water makes many ripples and the League has been doing just that, affecting many with their desire to do good. This is a story to be savored, shared, and inspired by.