The Pay It Forward Challenge
They pooled $3,000 to buy 200 Target and Starbucks gift cards, leaving each with $500 for a project representing a personal passion. Gift cards went to cheerful strangers with instructions to enjoy it or "pay it forward" to someone else. Starbucks pitched in another 100 gift cards.
Handing out 300 gift cards is no small chore, so they got creative. Wearing T-shirts with the slogan "All Kinds of Good" on the front and "What KIND are you?" on the back, they fanned out at Seattle's Pike Place Market, handing out gift cards with notes urging recipients to do some good.
At one of the market's stalls, they gathered a rowdy crowd for a local tradition—fish-throwing—and for every chilled fish tossed and caught mid-air, they gave out gift cards!
The women secured an additional $10,000 in donations and pledges for Project Kesho, part of which was raised by Seattle children selling hot chocolate for children in Tanzania.
"The two teachers receiving our gift were elated, overwhelmed and emotional," Kristin says. "The idea that others could share and support their enthusiasm for a village of families on the other side of the world was nearly unbelievable to them."
Ally and Kristin spent the other half of their Pay It Forward Challenge money on Target and Starbucks gift cards for strangers as part of a project dubbed, "All Kinds of Good," which was done with four other Washington friends.
Ally loved the response from those on the receiving end, whether it was an unexpected $10 Starbucks gift card or the gift to the African school children. "Whilst paying it forward we were received by hugs, smiles, cheering and promises by others to go out and continue the chain of giving!" she writes. "Oprah's Pay It Forward project made my body tingle, and I am reminded how good it is to be alive."
Through her mother, she heard about Barb Stanton, a thoughtful nurse who created a garden in the barren courtyard of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Seattle.
"Prompted by her husband's weeding efforts and the help of her 85-year-old mother and personal funds, Nurse Barb set about turning a sad space into a lush gathering spot for patients and caregivers to enjoy," Heija says. "Her hard work means that patients can escape the sterile walls of the hospital to experience the sounds, smell and feel of nature—what a priceless gift."
Heija contributed $250 to the garden and arranged for a local nursery to donate bulbs for spring and winter pansies, as well as ornamental cabbage to dress up the garden before the bulbs bloom.
Heija donated another $250 to the Veterans Administration Hospital for coffee service for patients. Her donation was supplemented by a donation of 250 pounds of beans from Tully's Coffee. Finally, in the spirit of the project, Heija found a vintage baby buggy for an Alzheimer's patient who needed a way to carry a cherished stuffed animal while walking.
"I have been overwhelmed by the community's reaction to the need for turkey money," Crista says. "In about five days, I received approximately $4,500 additional dollars, as well as an offer to lower per-pound prices for turkey and delivery to the food bank with the turkeys. It was amazing!"
Crista was also one of six Seattle-area friends who pooled $3,000 to buy hundreds of Target and Starbucks gift cards for strangers as part of a project they dubbed, "All Kinds of Good."
The children also received a Nutcracker book and met the ballet dancers who played the parts of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. "The children were ecstatic," Danya writes. "It was so fun to see them get their books and start reading. There was a huge line to meet Clara and high-five the Nutcracker."
In the spirit of paying it forward, Danya got as much out of it as the children. "I felt amazing afterwards!" she says. "My husband and I strive to create a culture of giving in our home, and it was wonderful to include my children in this project. … The experience of being challenged by Oprah was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but we can pay it forward everyday in ways big and small."
One of the women, Sharon, had been a preschool support teacher for Diane's autistic son. The other, Maryann, is a mother of three, including two who are autistic. In 2005, Maryann was diagnosed with breast cancer. Diane used her Pay It Forward Challenge money to buy spa certificates, coffee gift cards and dinner out for the women. Diane's family planned to babysit Sharon's and Maryann's children while they were enjoying the time off.
Diane says Sharon's "kindness and love know no bounds," and that Maryann has handled her challenges "with grace and dignity." Both women were "surprised and touched" by the gifts, she says.
"We thought that … it would be so much fun to just go out and pay for somebody's gas, to pay for somebody's groceries," says Harolyn Smith, who teamed up with friend Shindal Bailey to give away the money. "However, it was a lot of stumps in the road for us."
After several false starts, they realize that people can be suspicious of women handing out money in parking lots—or that they simply don't want to be videotaped receiving gift cards. But some people are happy to be on the receiving end of unexpected goodwill. Harolyn helps one woman at a filling station when she overhears her saying that she could only afford $2 worth of gas for her car.
What they can't give away in gift cards to strangers, Shindal and Harolyn give to a church and a mosque. They also spend several hundred dollars buying new winter coats and gloves for children and men at a Cleveland shelter.
"A lot of times it was … amazing to me that it felt so good giving away the money even though you know you could have used it," Harolyn says. "We bought coats for the homeless, and then I had to turn around the next day, when it snowed, and make sure my daughter had a winter coat. I had to go out and buy her a coat. So, it felt good. It was a good experience, I'm glad that we were chosen."
The school serves children ages 3–19 during their hospital stays, whether short or long-term, allowing them to keep up with their assignments from their regular school. Teachers and volunteers work with the students either in their rooms or in a classroom, and the children have access to a media room and a computer lab as well. Though the school is funded through the local school system and a private endowment fund, it rarely receives in-kind donations for supplies and equipment. The school staff is overjoyed to learn about Renee's generosity.
After speaking with teachers, volunteers and some of the students at the hospital school, Renee sets out to put her money to good use. She gives $500 toward the purchase of a new computer for the school. The rest of the money buys books, computer games and gifts for the children. Renee enlists several stores to "pay it forward" as well. Barnes & Noble donates books. Best Buy gives $100 to the school, and Borders gives Renee $200 for books, as well as a discount on her purchases.
Although Renee has contributed to charities in the past, spending time in the hospital school really opens her eyes to the power of giving. "I think that if you could have the opportunity to go and visit those organizations that you're donating to and really get to see the inside of it, it would make you appreciate it more, and want to do more to help them out," she says.
Francie sets out to find a person who has taken a stance against a perpetrator and will benefit from the gift. She contacts the La Crosse County Victim/Witness Assistance Program, which connects her with Michelle, a survivor of severe domestic abuse and sexual assault. Michelle is the mother of two young boys, including one who is autistic.
After 11 years in an abusive marriage, Michelle found the courage to leave her husband and make a new start with her children. The money Francie gives her will be used to pay off some of her bills and give her sons the wonderful Christmas they deserve.
"I am excited to provide this opportunity for her," Francie says. "I know she reached a point in her life where she no longer would take abuse and that she wasn't going to take it anymore and that she needed to take a stand against her abuser and stand up for herself and her children, and I am hoping that this money will provide her with opportunities that she would not have had without this gift."
Tyler is serving a five to10-year sentence at the Omaha Correctional Center. He is up for parole review soon, and Diane wants to help him if and when he is released. "I wanted him to know that I care and believe in him, and even if we do make mistakes, you can still be a successful person and have a quality life," Diane says.
Diane writes to tell him about the $1000 gift card that will be his when he's released, asking only that he continue to "pay it forward" and make a difference in the lives of others.
Tyler is overwhelmed. In a three-page letter, he writes to Diane, "Through Oprah's gift, and now your gift, you are making a difference in my life, and I hope I don't let you down when it's my time to shine and pass this blessing on."
First, the pair spend $500 on grocery cards from Key Food, a local grocery chain. To help make their project a success, Key Food matches their donation! Then, Camille and Patrick buy gift cards for Toys "R" Us for holiday presents. They also purchase gas and metro cards so parents can look for work.
The parents are thrilled at Camille and Patrick's generosity—and relieved that some financial pressure has been lifted from them around the holidays. Camille and Patrick get a lot out of it, too. "We learned a lot through this," Camille says. "… that I don't need as much as I thought I needed … how lucky I am because I have a roof over my head. I know where my next meal's coming from and I don't have to worry about being on the street."
Patrick says he enjoyed helping the families. "They believed that no one cared about them and were worried about what the future held for them, " he says. " We showed that someone cared and that we're able to help them in their darkest hour."
Camille adds that since she and Patrick "paid it forward," she has heard that two of the parents they helped have found work!
Marisa decides to have a little fun delivering the good news. She dresses as a French artist before heading out to donate art supplies, and poses with her tiny dog Lola before visiting the animal shelter.
"I feel fantastic!" Marisa says. "I also feel like I want to do more. It made me realize how lucky I have been and how it is important to help others. I think, actually, I am going to do a lot more acts of kindness especially during the holiday season!"
"I want to let her know that I think she's a remarkable person," Gina says of Tiana. "She's strong, she's courageous, and she's helping support her husband. Things must not be easy for her," Gina says.
Tiana is grateful for the help. "You know how much you changed my life, and you know my husband's not here this year. … This means a lot to us," she says.
For her kindness, Gina receives Fort Hamilton's Coin of Excellence, an award given to soldiers who go "above and beyond the call of duty."
Nationwide, Ronald McDonald Houses host families of severely ill children receiving treatment at nearby hospitals. Debra is grateful for the kindness shown to her by the staff and wants to give back to the place that helped her. She finds that the Ronald McDonald House is in need of new blankets—the ones they have are in poor condition, and they must use twin blankets on full-size beds. With that as her mission, Debra uses her entire $1000 to purchase 47 new, warm blankets!
Debra welcomes the opportunity to help other families going through a difficult time. "I know what it’s like to have a child in the hospital for a long time," she says. "When we stayed there, the staff was so kind to us. I am so happy I got the chance to pay it forward!"
After a little investigating, Debra discovers the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Children’s Hospital, which helps families of children suffering from cancer. Started by a local family who lost their young son to cancer, the Four Diamonds Fund helps pay the medical bills not covered by insurance for children treated for cancer at the hospital.
The assistant coordinator of the fund says, "It’s a big relief to families, because this allows them to focus on the health of their child and not have to worry about the cost of care." The fund also supports the pediatric cancer laboratories at the hospital, as well as the medical staff.
"It was [a] reminder to me how precious life is and how a simple act of kindness goes a long way," Debra says.
Despite the difficulties, Constance finished high school—the first to do so in her family—and earned certification as a nursing assistant. She is determined to make a better life for herself and Brianna. She refuses any form of public assistance, but has the support of teachers and others who believe in her.
Brenda uses her Pay it Forward Challenge money to pay for Constance's winter utilities, buy her groceries and repair the brakes on her car. She also gives her money to buy Christmas gifts for Brianna and other family members.
"After talking [to] and helping this young lady, I realize how much I take for granted, especially for my family in my early childhood years," Brenda says. "It was a revealing and humbling experience for me."
Mary Schmit organizes the local challenge, taking 150 5- and 6-year-olds to see Sesame Street Live. She taps local businesses to pay for transportation, snacks and souvenirs—a T-shirt, Sesame Street book and Elmo doll for every child.
For the national project, Sharon Kopp works with the American Cancer Society. With help from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, Sharon Kopp turns $1,000 into $100,000! The money will be donated to Iowa Hope Lodge, a rent-free place for cancer patients to live during treatment away from home.
Valerie Creedon takes on the international project, finding Joshua, an 11-month-old boy from Ireland with arthrogryposis, a crippling joint condition that was affecting his arms and legs. Not knowing how to treat the condition, doctors in Ireland had amputated Joshua's legs above the knees. Valerie and her friends raise money to bring Joshua to a Shiner's hospital in Chicago for surgery to save his arms.
Kelly Blask helps out by raising additional money for the projects. "We have decided to keep this going and are setting up a foundation so we can continue to help others in need," she says.
With the money leftover, they buy winter clothes for Helping Hands Coat Closet. They give the last $100 to a single mother struggling to finish nursing school.
"As the volunteers poured in to help make the blankets, that was an amazing, awesome feeling," says Stacey. "So many people in a small, rural community willing to help others."
Upon receiving the gift cards, some are delighted and others are a bit wary—but "all agree to pay it forward," Carolyn says. She adds that she and Malcolm have been motivated by the project to stay attuned to the needs of those around them. "We will definitely continue to pay it forward by checking the media for strangers with great needs and contributing to their cause."
"Some of them did not have family, no one to help. Some were … Katrina evacuees," Brewer says. "Just to know that I was able to help and see the smile on their face made me feel bless[ed] that I was give[en] the chance to do that for them."
With the remaining $300 she buys a Wal-Mart gift card for a single mother with four kids.
The mother, Dorothy, jumps up and down with joy when she receives the gift, which she planned to use for Christmas gifts for her children.
Rose Marie's grandson, Brady, buys books for his school's library. A young girl named Ellie, who is losing her sight because of a brain tumor, buys flowers and a restaurant gift certificate for her mother. Rose Marie is so touched that she gives Ellie another $100, just for her.
Another $100 purchases a Wal-Mart gift certificate for a family in need. Rose Marie and her friend Amelia donate wish-list items and children's medicine to a women's shelter.
Her daughter, Ashley, gives her $100 to a co-worker who always has a smile and a kind word for her. Another friend, Nancy, gives a friend a $50 bus pass and $50 in cash. Finally, Rose Marie brings clothes to a single mother with one adopted child and four foster children. The rest of her money is handed out spontaneously to people on the street, either in cash or gift cards.
"As we have given to each person, I have felt the goodness of those who received," Rose Marie says. "I know that my family and I will be more in tune with the many needs that are around us. My eyes will be looking constantly for ways I can help others."
She begins by asking for guidance and finds herself in Target. After wandering the aisles, she goes to the registers and notices a mother and daughter having their purchases rung up. Georgianna makes Donna and Casey's day by offering to pay for everything. She even urges them to go back into the store for more, including hats and scarves for Donna's sister, who is recovering from a bone marrow transplant.
While she's waiting for Donna and Casey to finish shopping, Georgianna strikes up a conversation with Sheila, the cashier. As a single mother, Sheila can always use a little help, and Georgianna uses half her money to buy her a gift card. Donna and Casey bring back enough merchandise to finish off the other half, and Georgianna's work is done!
"I felt like a millionaire!" Georgianna says. "I could do things like this daily. I realize even more that I do have something to share with others."
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