The Pay It Forward Challenge
Michelle wants to do something special for the hardworking employees of her school, so she decides to throw a staff appreciation breakfast. She wants to treat them with time to relax and mingle with each other—something that doesn't happen much on a regular school day.
The school's principal, Diane, is grateful for Michelle's thoughtfulness. "These people are living the 'pay it forward' philosophy every single day," she says. "We're thrilled that you have given something to these people who give so much."
Darlene wants to help Miriam because she is truly a success story. Miriam dropped out of school when she was 17, after the birth of her second child, but returned two years later and graduated as valedictorian. Now she puts her kids' needs first, while she continues to better her life.
Darlene takes Miriam shopping for shoes and winter coats for her girls and new outfits for the young mother. Their next stop is a beauty salon, where Miriam is treated to a haircut, facial, pedicure and makeup application—the salon is so moved by her story that they donate their services, as well as gift certificates for two follow-up haircuts! While Miriam is looking fantastic, Darlene treats her to a session at a portrait studio, which in turn invites her to bring back the entire family for a free photo session. Finally, Darlene arranges for a delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as other groceries, for the family.
It means a lot to Darlene to help Miriam. "You are a young mom, and you have a lot of challenges you face every day. You're someone who defeated all the odds, and I feel that a woman like you should be celebrated."
Annalisa and Sam enlist the help of three local elementary school teachers to go door to door in Gaston Point to find out what their neighbors need to make them more comfortable. The residents need items like furniture, a microwave and a recliner. One elderly gentleman asks for neckties, handkerchiefs, cuff links and cologne. One of his neighbors asks for a heating blanket, dinner plates and flatware. Annalisa and Sam buy all the items plus gifts cards for those who did not have a preference. They go to each home to deliver their gifts to the grateful residents. And as an added surprise, Annalisa and Sam give each teacher who helped a $90 spa gift certificate!
"Giving is contagious, Oprah, and because of that I'm sure that you know the people that we're giving to today, they will turn around and actually give to someone else," Sam says.
"It definitely filled our hearts with joy," Annalisa says. "If I could quit my job and give daily, I would."
Scott takes half of his challenge money and turns it into five $100 gift cards. It's not easy to give them away since he has a hard time telling who needs them. "You can't look at a person and tell whether they are poor or not," he says. "No one would think I'm currently jobless with no income." He adds his last $500 to the money Alea is using to buy blankets and supplies for a women's shelter.
Alea uses the remainder of her challenge money to buy a mattress and other household items for Renee, a mother raising four children in Canton, Michigan. Alea learns about the family from a 12-year-old boy, Jaykob, who befriended one of Renee's sons on the bus. Jaykob says the boy didn't have many friends because other children thought he was "weird" since he has crossed eyes. After becoming friends, Jaykob found out that the boy has been saving coins in a box to pay for an operation to fix his eyes—the result of someone having dropped a cinder block on him when he was younger.
Jaykob tells Alea that he helped his new friend clean his room and discovered that he had no bed. He tried to find an air mattress for the boy but could not and is still very upset about it. That's when Alea and Scott step in. They buy a mattress and other necessities for the family.
"I will never for get this experience and hope to keep giving," Alea says. Scott says that he is looking forward to seeing what others do with their challenge money. "Hopefully, this really starts a revolution."
"The day that [Glenn] died, I knew that any money people wanted to donate in his memory had to go to the Fountain Gallery because of the impact that it had on his life," Heather says. "It was a place—the only place in this world—where he was able to become a respected member of the community, where people saw [him] for the artist he was, not just somebody struggling with mental illness."
The gallery is an offshoot of Fountain House, a 56-year-old organization providing services for the mentally ill in New York City. It serves 40 artists who show and sell their work through the gallery. As Heather makes clear, the gallery is not a center for art therapy but a facility helping artists with mental illness realize their professional dreams.
Artists affiliated with the gallery tell Gretchen how Glenn inspired them and how his inspiration lives on through the scholarship. Gretchen and Renee give $2,000 to the memorial fund—enough to help four to six artists buy art supplies, take classes and pursue their art for a year.
"I found this week both exhilarating and emotional, much more than I would have guessed at the start," Gretchen says.
The gift touches on each of Kari's hardships. Kari's sister's illness reminds her how those with disabilities need help from others. Many of the dogs trained by Paws for a Cause are golden retrievers like the dog she lost, and her father trained military dogs when he served in Vietnam.
Kari and Sally visit the facility that sends dogs to clients throughout the United States. Dogs are trained over several months to do a range of tasks from opening doors and picking up dropped items to operating elevators. A staff member at Paws for a Cause tells Kari and Sally how her dog Argon saved her life when she fell into a glass table and cut her head. Doctors say she would have bled to death if it had not been for the quick work of Argon, who found and delivered the phone although it was not in its regular spot.
Paws for a Cause will use the $2,000 Kari and Sally donate to train dogs and buy supplies as needed. "You kind of get caught up in your own troubles and sadness, and there's a point where you realize that, beyond you, people all around you are suffering and hurting. And that's where you want to get out and try to do something for somebody else, and at the same time, it actually does something for you, too," Kari says after completing the challenge.
Sally told him that she would help him find his family, but first she wanted to get him out of the city. She helped him find a bus and called his brother to let him know that Timothy was okay. Later that same night, Timothy called to say that he had arrived safely in Fort Worth, Texas. The next day, Sally and her husband went to one shelter after another looking for Timothy's girlfriend and daughter. Amazingly, they found them listed on a Red Cross intake directory. They were safe in Dallas and Sally reunited the family!
In a letter he wrote to Sally, Timothy expressed how much her phone call meant to him that day. "My life was taken away, little I had but God bless[es] us all. Everything [is] for a reason. Your name will be repeated in my household, in my family [and] among my friends."
More than a year later, with her challenge money in hand, Sally decides to meet Timothy and see if he needs her help. After an emotional reunion, she takes Timothy and his family shopping for clothes and toys and things they lost when they fled New Orleans. The gifts come to a total of $647.00. While shopping, Sally learns that Timothy sends $2 of every paycheck to the Red Cross—a thank you for the help they gave him after the hurricane. Sally sees this as the ultimate act of "paying it forward." She gives the remaining $353 to the Red Cross to keep the cycle going.
Cheryl visits CASA to find out how they help the children they serve. David Sikes, director of the center, shows Cheryl a film demonstrating how children who say they have been abused are greeted and interviewed in a child-friendly setting. One person interviews the child while law enforcement officials monitor the conversation from another room to be sure the interviewer gets all the information needed to evaluate the case. Rather than having to tell their story multiple times to multiple agencies, the information gathered during the sessions at CASA is shared by agencies protecting the children and those prosecuting the abusers.
Cheryl talks with some of the volunteers who serve as advocates for children going through the investigation of their case. CASA is able to assign each volunteer only a few cases. Unlike social workers who may be managing many cases, CASA volunteers have fewer assignments, which allow them to guide children at length through the investigation and prosecution of their case.
Cheryl is pleased that her gift will help CASA continue its important work. "The children are dealt cards that they don't have any control over. Thanks to the people of this organization, they have a voice—a chance!"
Jennifer knows Jan and Eric because they agreed to take in her two teenage nieces who have cystic fibrosis. Their mother is unable to care for them and they don't always get along with each other. Jennifer and her husband Scott had hoped to care for the girls, but after five weeks they found that they could not manage their care along with their other three children. After spending some time with the girls, Jan and Eric agree to take them into their foster home that includes other children with disabilities.
They've cut down on the fighting by giving each of the girls a roll of quarters. Every time they fight they have to give up a quarter. If they don't fight, they get to keep the money. "It's a good trick," Eric says.
Jan cries when Jennifer explains the $1,000 gift. "I just can't believe this. I mean I just feel so unworthy of this. I just can't believe this," she says. "We're just so blessed by the kids that come into our home that I just feel so unworthy of this."
After composing herself, Jan says she will use the money to "pay it forward" to someone else in need. "That's what we always wind up doing," Eric says.
Christina is an elementary school psychologist and leader of Waukegan's public school crisis management. She knows how unusual it is to have three suicides in one year at a single high school. She and Gregory decide to use their $2,000 in challenge money to purchase suicide prevention kits for two high schools and three middle schools in her area. The kits educate teachers, staff and students on suicide warning signs and how to help a student who may be considering taking his or her own life. They also used the money to buy 400 cards with suicide hotline information printed in Spanish and English.
"I feel that the gift will help end the contagion that exists at the high school and save the lives of the students there," Christina says. "It will also educate our students, staff and parents on the risk factors of suicide and how to get help when needed."
As part of Christina's presentation to the high school, three students talk about the program. One who knew two of the students who died says, "We couldn't save our friends but maybe with this program we could save somebody else's so it's worth it, I think. In the end it will all be worth it."
In fact, the program may have saved some lives already. After Christina's presentation, several students came forward to report concerns about their friends. Two students were treated for suicidal thoughts and released without incident.
Lorie and her 14-year-old son Matt are homeless in Olympia. Despite their circumstances, they volunteer at a local mission and help others. The mission in turn decides to give Lorie and Matt a trailer they've been fixing up for the last eight months. Rani and Trong help with repairs and buy clothing and groceries for Lorie and Matt.
Rani and Trong reward two others—Lynette and Charles, tireless volunteers at their church. They treat Lynette to a shopping spree and a makeover. While Lynette is having her hair and nails done, Rani takes Charles out shopping for new clothes. When both emerge in their new outfits, Rani and Trong send them to a romantic dinner!
"We enjoyed the day," says Charles. "We were very surprised and we were blessed with the opportunity to be able to just be able to be taken care of." Lynette adds, "I feel very pampered. I guess the overwhelming feeling is that I was cared about by other people."
Anne heads to Lafayette, Louisiana, to present her donation to Becky, a JDRF representative. Becky explains why foundation-funded research is so important. "The disease requires [management] 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. A child has to get their glucose checked eight to 10 times a day, as well as receive insulin in order to continue living." Until they discover a cure, Becky says, JDRF will continue to work toward preventing complications from the disease.
Deciding how to spend the challenge money was no challenge at all, Anne says. "By donating to the JDRF, I am one of a compassionate group of people around the country determined to reach the day when we can say, 'We are the people who cured diabetes.'"
Due to the new arrival, Lenita doesn't have as much time as she'd like to make decisions about her donations. So she decides to surprise four unsuspecting strangers with the money in her hometown of Homewood, Illinois. At first, she wonders how she will find people who need the money, but Lenita seems to have good sense for those in need.
The first woman she chooses is overjoyed, telling Lenita that she was recently robbed and that the money will be very useful. The second recipient explains that her daughter is in intensive care following a car accident and that she is taking care of her grandchildren while her daughter recovers. A man working on his car is surprised and a little bit wary of the gift, saying, "Free money is hard to get." When Lenita tells her final choice that she hopes the money can be of good use, the woman assures her it will. "I'm not working and my husband's not working," she says.
Lenita is happy that she was able to participate in the challenge even though she was quite busy at home with her new infant. Despite the timing, she says, "It's always a blessing to be able to give back."
Juan and Shimon—who also attended the show—accept the Pay It Forward Challenge and put their $2,000 to work starting another campaign…one that turns Juan's hugging philosophy into help for others. The project, Freehelpcampaign.org, is a website that connects people who need help with those able to give it. "We cut out the middle man of larger charitable organizations and get right down to the individual," Juan explains.
To get the word out, Shimon and his band put on a free concert at Los Angeles Mission, a social service organization serving the city's Skid Row neighborhood. Tapping into their music industry contacts and others they know, Juan and Shimon donate new clothing, cell phone minutes and bottled water. People are so willing to help, in fact, that Juan and Shimon have a hard time spending their $2,000!
"It's not about any one individual," Juan says. "It's about every individual, and we can all make a difference because the beautiful thing about life is knowing that you're the one who gets to put it all together."
After Charese presents the $2,000 to Jakki, the school's program director, the kindness doesn't stop there! Jakki says she will divide a portion of the money among the students so they can have the learning experience of giving to others in need. Jakki also hopes to start a leadership program for the students.
Charese is certain the money will be put to good use. "I know that the people who received the gift will continue to promote happiness, encourage [the children] to remain steadfast in the learning environment and will make their lives better as they explore the vast world outside of their Brooklyn neighborhoods," she says.
Ella says it warms her heart to think about the fun the children will have through the after-school program. "In my mind, I truly believe that some students will no longer have to go home to empty homes, no longer watch hours of TV, and most important, students will not be getting into trouble in the streets," she says.
The school has a fundraiser in which the students donate $1 each to attend a fundraising rally during school hours, and David and Kim pay for the remaining students to attend. They hold an essay contest to pick a student to receive $500 to carry out his own random act of kindness.
The winning essay is written by a student named John. With help from David and Kim, he takes two strangers out to dinner and sends them on a shopping trip. Then, John surprises everyone by giving the men $50 each from his own pocket! "For a 12-year-old to give $100 of his own money to strangers so that they could have money in their pocket—it was like the tables were turning," Kim says. "We were really the ones who learned something."
Kim and David spend their remaining money in a variety of inventive ways. Kim poses as a homeless person and hands out gift cards to anyone who offers to help her. "We felt that this was a good way to give back to those that were compassionate enough to give in the first place," David says.
Kim and David buy meals for strangers behind them in line at a drive-thru, give a $200 tip to a waiter at a restaurant and donate $200 to their church. They pass out bouquets to women leaving a hardware store. And, two women using a Laundromat receive a big surprise when David and Kim give them a washer and dryer! Not to be left out, Kim and David's dog gets in on the action, helping his owners pick out toys for Oprah's dogs!
At the end of the challenge, the teachers say they had a lot of fun—and learned some valuable lessons. "We learned a lot about ourselves. We learned a lot about the hearts of other people [and] the giving nature of kids," David says.
When Lori arrives at the school, principal Carey Murray, second-grade teacher Sarah and school counselor Kathy think they are receiving only $500. But Lori surprises them by donating the entire $1,000! Carey, Sarah and Kathy say the money will be put to good use. "We have a lot of students that live in poverty. …," Carey says. "We have students [who] need coats or shoes or school supplies, backpacks, food—lots of different things."
To help provide for their needs, Kathy says some of the money can be used for the school's food drive and holiday toy collection. Sarah adds that it can also buy much-needed school supplies like crayons and rulers.
"I think the one thing that I come away with this is there are so many needs out there, and if we all just did a little bit, so many people can be blessed by that," Lori says.
Janice spends $600 to buy the men coats and shoes from Steve & Barry's. "[Shoes are] something very specific they can't get. Each person needs their own size," she says. "They have clothes donated and everything like that, which the men are happy to have, but shoes are something more personal." Janice uses the rest of the money to buy Chicago bus passes to help the men look for jobs.
Janice feels joyful "to see the gratitude of these men who realized someone cared about them and they were not forgotten."
In addition to her challenge money, Janice raises $1,000 from family and friends! She uses the bonus money to buy supplies for the Sunday school program at a church in Evanston, Illinois.
Linda, of Kearney, Nebraska, donates her $1,000 to the Kearney Catholic High School Library to buy books in honor of Elizabeth Stratton, a 14-year-old student who died in 2006 after a four-year battle with cancer. While Linda did not know Elizabeth, she followed her story through the teenager's website. "Her death on my birthday made me feel like this was a sign to donate the money to her," Linda says, adding that she plans to match the challenge money with a personal donation to Elizabeth's family.
Elizabeth's mother, Sami, says helping the library is a perfect way to honor Elizabeth. She remembers Elizabeth being tired and nervous on her first day of high school. "We walk into the library, and there's just this overwhelming sense of calm," she says. "And you could just feel her kind of relax, and it's like, 'Oh, yeah. This is where I belong, is in the library.'"
Elizabeth's father, Joe, says his daughter touched many people, from other cancer patients to visitors to her website. "Even when she didn't feel good, she would carry a smile and just be an incredible light to everyone she met," he says.
For Elizabeth's grandmother, Gale, Linda's project brings something she always wanted—an opportunity for Elizabeth's story to be told through Oprah. "I knew one day, one way or another, Oprah would find Lizzie, or Lizzie would find Oprah, because she has a story that needs to be told," she says.
After the challenge, Linda feels at peace with her choice. "I worried so much in making the right decision," she says. "Now I know any decision I would have made, if it was from my heart, would have been right."
Celeste donates $500 to the hospital's animal-assisted therapy program, which brings dogs to the patients to give them company and comfort. "I think it is very important, and I think it will change a lot of people's lives," she says.
The remaining $500 goes toward the Animals Deserving of Proper Treatment (A.D.O.P.T) animal shelter in Naperville. Celeste wants to buy food and supplies for the shelter, which took in more than a dozen animals from Hurricane Katrina.
Celeste says the challenge helped her realize that her actions can make the world a better place. "I know that hundreds of animals will be saved. Their lives will be saved, and they'll be able to be adopted out to loving families and loving homes," she says. "And I know the patients at these hospitals will be very thankful for the time they got to spend with an animal, to make them feel better, to make them feel less lonely and enlighten their life."
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