It was in the early afternoon of a mid-October 2012 day that Bismark Mensah was collecting carts outside a Walmart in Federal Way, a part-time job for which he earned $9.05 an hour as a “courtesy associate.”
He was used to finding stuff in carts that customers had somehow forgotten — keys, credit cards, wallets. And he turned them in to customer service.
But this particular item stood out. It was a white envelope with a clear window in the middle, bulging with what was inside, a lot of cash. Around $20,000, it turned out.
Because of what he did that afternoon, Mensah now is in possession of a plaque that names him the winner of the retail giant’s national 2013 “Integrity in Action Award.”
Mensah is 32 and he remembers the exact date — Feb. 8, 2012 — on which he arrived in the U. S. of A., at JFK International Airport, from Ghana.
He has a photo of that occasion: standing in an airport parking lot, wearing a cap and scarf in the Ghanaian national colors of red, gold and green, an optimistic smile on his face.
He has dreams; you know, the perennial ones that immigrants through generations, and from countries all over the world, have told and still tell. They don’t mind sounding naive about America being the land of opportunity.
For Mensah that meant get a job, go to college, study business administration, eventually return to Ghana to expand the five little shops that his mom, Irene, had started from her work as a seamstress.
But about that $20,000.
It belonged to Leona Wisdom and Gary Elton, a couple from Black Diamond.
The wife says they were returning home from getting the money at a finance company when they stopped off to shop at the Walmart at South 345th Street and 16th Avenue South.
Wisdom says she’s a caregiver who works with people who are disabled, and says the cash was for a down payment on a house the couple was buying on a short sale. They didn’t get the money as a check, Wisdom says, because they didn’t want to wait days for it to clear.
It’s also the case that, for reasons that might not seem logical to many, some people deal in cash.
Wisdom had two carts full of merchandise and Mensah helped her take the stuff to the trunk of her car.
As she was driving away, Mensah noticed what had fallen out of her purse — that thick envelope.
“I run after them. I think somebody heard me and signaled for them to stop,” he remembers.
Mensah handed her the envelope.
“She was like, ‘Wow!’ Tears are coming out. She took some money and tried to reward me. I said, ‘No, no. I’m all right,’?” says Mensah.
He figures that every couple of weeks, after deductions, his take-home pay is around $620 to $640.
Mensah can manage because he’s staying for free at the Auburn home of Vicki Campbell, who has traveled to Ghana and had come to know Mensah’s mother when she sewed dresses for Campbell.
He has an aunt in Portland, cousins in New York.
“He’s a hardworking young man,” says Campbell, who has grown children of her own. “I don’t like to work with people who are slackers.”
Mensah says keeping the $20,000 never occurred to him.
“My conscience wouldn’t allow it. I couldn’t even drive home if I did that,” he says.
Wisdom says she called the store twice to make sure management knew about Mensah’s good deed.
She also tried to again do something to thank him, but he declined her offer to be taken out to dinner.
Wisdom says she also asked Mensah if he was single, which he is, as she has a daughter who is single. “It’s hard to find honest people,” she explains.
Mensah demurred at the matchmaking offer, too.
Jeremy Smith, who was then the store manager, says customers regularly called the store about Mensah.
“Maybe they were trying to load something heavy into their vehicle. He rushed right away to help them. They were overwhelmed with his kindness and generosity,” says Smith.
A month ago, Mensah was moved to a full-time position, and $9.19 an hour, with benefits.
Besides working in the parking lot, he now also has responsibilities in the backroom, as an inventory-control specialist.
He says he knows that Wal-Mart has at times been viewed negatively. Even his mom in Ghana was concerned about her son working at the chain and phoned him.
Mensah says he “cooled her down,” reassured her that he liked the place, people there treat him right, that he was learning a lot and could take what he learned about running a big retail place back to Ghana.
He says, “You have to start someplace.”
These days, Mensah works pushing carts in the parking lot a couple of days a week, the rest in inventory.
He’s easy to spot, the guy with the smile.
“In the parking lot, people chat, tell you their problems, you see that a person is not happy. I tell them, ‘God is in control. Everything is OK,’?” says Mensah.
Somehow, he says, it helps the sad people to hear from a hopeful person.