With her $1,000 in hand, Renee Bailey knew exactly where she wanted the money to go. Renee's daughter, Melissa, is a volunteer at the University of North Carolina Children's Hospital School, and Renee knew it would benefit from her donation.
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.
In 1992, when Francie Biesanz was the victim of a crime, the kindness of strangers helped strengthen her and overcome her feeling of isolation. With the Pay It Forward Challenge, she looks for an opportunity to honor those who helped her by helping someone in her hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
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."
Diane Bell wants to make a difference in someone's life, but doesn't know where to start. After watching the movie Pay It Forward for inspiration, she decides to help a man from her hometown, Fairbury, Nebraska, prepare for life after prison.
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."
Camille Barry and Patrick Harrison of Brooklyn, New York, use their challenge money to help 10 unemployed, single parents make it through the holidays.
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!
A thousand dollars goes a long way in the hands of Marisa Barra. She starts by helping people with small, random acts of kindness—buying them coffee or gas. Next, she buys art supplies for her church's religion school and coats for those who come to the church for help. She buys pet food for a local animal shelter, and gives the remaining $500 to a single mother of five living in public housing.
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!"
For her challenge, Gina Cordano helps Tiana Areizaga, a stay-at-home mother of three young children whose husband is serving in Afghanistan. She gives Tiana $500 in gift cards for clothes and toys, and $500 to a holiday fund for military families stationed at Fort Hamilton Garrison in Brooklyn, New York.
"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."
For Debra Murray, deciding what to do with her Pay It Forward Challenge money is simple. In March 2006, her 19-year-old daughter, Rebecca, spent almost a month in the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, recovering from surgery on a collapsed lung. The hospital was two hours away from Debra’s home, so she and her husband found temporary housing at the Ronald McDonald House in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
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!"
Aurora Bibona attended The Oprah Winfrey Show for the Pay It Forward Challenge, but at age 83, she decided to leave the leg work up to her daughter, Debra Murray. Aurora left Debra with specific instructions—she wanted the money to go to a cause affiliated with the hospital that helped her sick granddaughter.
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.
Brenda Greenlee decides to use her money to help Constance Walker, a 19-year-old single mother with a past no one would envy. One of nine children whose mother could not care for her, Constance grew up in series of unsafe and unsupportive homes. By 16, she was pregnant with her daughter Brianna.
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."
Four friends from Dubuque, Iowa, combine their challenge money to fund three projects—one local, one national and one international.
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.
Stacey Brandt and Laure Meyer of Sumner, Iowa, find a unique way to "pay it forward," making fleece blankets, which they call "warm hugs," for the needy. They combine their challenge money to buy fabric and then gather a hundred volunteers from their town to help. The volunteers make the blankets by cutting and tying fleece fringe along the edges, and then distribute them to five local nursing homes and hospitals.
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."
Husband and wife team Malcolm and Carolyn Brathwaite give $400 to a single parent in their hometown of Philadelphia. The remaining $1,600 buys $200 gift cards for eight strangers picked at random.
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."
Doris Brewer Bullard uses her challenge money to purchase clothes for nine seniors at a nursing home in her hometown of Gonzales, Louisiana. She also buys a television for a bed-bound patient who cannot watch TV with the other residents.
"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 Brady enlists her family and friends to help her "pay it forward" by giving them each $100. They create a giving tree, selling purple ribbons for $1 each to add to the $1000 from Oprah's Pay It Forward Challenge.
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."
When Georgianna Brent set out to give away her Pay It Forward Challenge money in Detroit, she had no idea how easy it would be…or how good it would make her feel.
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." Get more Pay It Forward Challenge stories
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