The Pay It Forward Challenge
Sue Dixon, Diane Wood and Betsy Watson meet Vonzet and Sarah through the Deacon's Conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Vonzet has been unable to find steady employment and only works a little here and there at odd jobs. Sadly, he can barely cover rent and expenses. He and his wife often have to borrow money to avoid eviction.
"I want to be able to support my family," Vonzet says. "I want my sons to be able to look at me and see that, you know, they don't have to depend on public assistance. They don't have to depend on handouts."
Moved by the family's struggle, Sue, Diane and Betsy get to work. They use their combined challenge money—$3,000 in all—to buy a dresser for Vonzet's 6-year-old twins. They also buy the twins presents and cupcakes to take to school to celebrate their upcoming birthday. Then, they buy a crib and clothes for the new baby and get the family a $300 Kohl's gift card.
But, that isn't all! They pay the families rent for two months and get them a new battery for their car. Friends add baby clothes and other items to the gifts.
Then in honor of "paying it forward," Sue, Diane and Betsy take the twins to a bookstore to buy books for other needy children, and they also buy winter gloves for the poor. "My heart felt like it was going to burst," Betsy says. "It was the best feeling in the world."
According to teachers who greet the students every morning, many children lack proper clothes for Chicago's blistery winter weather. Oftentimes their coats are too thin or they have broken zippers. Most students don't have hats and gloves either.
That is where Nicole steps in! She gives the school her challenge money to buy coats and uniforms for the children.
The school thanks Nicole by making her honorary principal for the day!
Dr. Lee Bomgaars is retiring soon, but he wants to continue treating the many needy children who come into his clinic. Dental equipment is very expensive, and Dr. Bomgaars is having trouble outfitting his facility with many of the things he needs to treat his patients. Ann puts the word out to friends and other dental offices, and the donations start pouring in!
Items donated by other dentists include sterilizing equipment and an X-ray machine, as well as simple office necessities like gloves, masks, bibs and gauze. Ann's friends and colleagues chip in another $1500. The money will go toward the cost of plumbing a water source into the clinic's treatment room.
Ann is gratified and a little relieved that she was able to pull this off. "I am so taken by how, when presented with a need, people come together," she says.
Suzette starts with a trip to the base commissary at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. She volunteers to pay bills for two shoppers. The first is a young soldier picking up a few groceries. Suzette remembers what it was like to be in his shoes, just starting out, with very little money to spare. Next, she helps a woman who is living on a limited income since her husband, who was retired military, passed away.
Through a friend, Suzette hears about a military family struggling to keep up with bills. Elicia Henson is a mother of three whose fiancé joined the National Guard to provide a source of income. Suzette gives the family $200 for household bills. Another $200 goes to the family of a solider who was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. His parents plan to use the money for gas and tolls as they visit their son during his long recovery.
Suzette uses her remaining $500 for a special project. She buys a camera and video equipment to help the Baltimore VA Hospital record stories for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, which documents stories of wartime service.
"I felt good, but there is so much more that needs to be done," Suzette says. "A lot of people have forgotten about the veterans."
The mission center provides a home for girls and women between ages 6 and 21 who need support for lives disrupted by abuse, truancy or pregnancy. Lisa, the home's director, says, "It's a structured environment and they learn a lot of things they haven't learned in a normal upbringing. It's just like a normal big family, and we're just a bunch of moms. We love ‘em like our own."
The La Guia Hispanic Center, another mission project, provides resources for the local Hispanic community, including translation services, counseling and assistance with documents like job applications or immigration papers.
The Benevolence Center, the mission's third initiative, is a clearinghouse for items donated by Logansport residents. A thrift store provides a place for needy families to shop for clothing, furniture and household items at a reduced cost. Some 1,800 families receive supplies from the mission's food pantry each month. Mary Williams, director of the Emmaus Mission Center, says Robin's donation will be very beneficial. "For the on-the-dollar amount, we can get six times as much food, so the $1,000 is going to turn into $6,000. Thank you, Oprah!"
Through a friend, Lavonne hears about Karleen, a wife and mother of two children disabled by inoperable brain tumors. She cannot move her left side and uses a wheelchair to get around.
Lavonne learns that a special brace, not covered by insurance, could help Karleen move around more easily—so Lavonne decides to buy it! With the remaining money, Lavonne replaces Karleen's living room carpet with wood so she can go into the living room in her wheelchair.
Karleen is grateful for the brace and the new floor that will help her regain her mobility. And Lavonne is grateful to have met Karleen through the challenge. "I have a new friend," she says. "I will send her cards [and] visit her at home or at work, Apple Valley Parks and Recreation Department, where she is missed as secretary."
For their challenge, the Gilliams decide to help Kirstie and Nathan— a couple who doesn't have money for a fancy wedding.
They buy Kirstie a bridal gown and rent a tux for Nathan. They find people to donate rings, a limousine and an outdoor location for the ceremony, and they buy the cake and book a honeymoon suite. The couple is overwhelmed with joy at the wedding surrounded by loving friends and family who want to support them in their new life.
The Gilliams may have a future in wedding planning—all that and they still have money left over to give away! With the extra money, they give a single mother a $500 gift card to buy Christmas presents for her children and donate to a scholarship for a student spring break camp.
"Nothing can compare to seeing other people filled with joy because of something you've done for them." Eleanor says.
First, they arrange for dental care for a 4-year-old boy named Cody who needs to have some cavities filled. Cody's dad was relieved to find a way to pay for the work, but Cody was more excited about the Legos Joni and Kim gave him.
The friends also arrange to fix a furnace for another family they find through Head Start, but they never get the chance! The HVAC company does it for free so Joni and Kim "pay forward" the family's heating bill by giving them a $300 credit.
Next, they donate coffee and Bingo prizes to a senior citizens home. They complete the challenge by sending care packages to three soldiers serving overseas and donating toys and treats for dogs at a local shelter.
Joni says the challenge taught her a great lesson. "It doesn't take a lot to make the life of someone else a whole lot better, even if we think it is something small."
The projects gave Kim a new appreciation. "[I have a] deep sense of accomplishment for what we were able to get done in such a short period and how many people we were able to reach."
"This is a joke, right?" Cecelia asks when surprised with the news by her dentist. "Its not a joke," says Mary. "I thought your story was wonderful and I thought … it would be a good thing."
Mary spends the rest of her challenge money on groceries for a single mother, gas for a stranger and Target items for another stranger. She donates the remainder to a local animal shelter.
"I was beaming from ear to ear after each act," Mary says.
Jennifer buys a spa package for Kathy and a gift certificate for a dinner with her children at a local steak house. She also gives Kathy money for Christmas presents and routine expenses.
"I think I made Kathy's day," Jennifer says once her challenge is complete. "I just wanted to touch her and raise her sprits, and I think I did … I just wanted to let her know that she's not alone."
That was just the beginning of her surprise! Before her challenge, Mary heard that her 13-year-old videographer and his family had suffered a fire in their home. To help his family in their time of need, Mary decides to reach out to friends and family to raise additional funds. At the end of her presentation, Mary surprises the boy with $1,000!
"This entire experience has placed me on an emotional high for 10 days," Mary says. "My interaction with the children was priceless. It is far better to give than receive. I hope that the children will grow into giving adults in mind and spirit."
The Commandos deliver presents and a message of hope on Christmas Eve to families who have lost a loved one during the year. "We want you to know that many people care deeply about you and share in your enormous loss," reads a card the Commandos leave at one home. "Through these gifts we hope that you are able to find joy and feel some of the magic and wonderment of the season."
Kim and Steve, who lost their 7-year-old daughter in a 2002 car accident, say the Commandos helped them through that first holiday season without their child. "[Christmas] is supposed to be such a joyous time of the year and it was a horrible time of the year for us, and it just put … like a glimmer of hope that it was okay to try to move on," Steve says.
The three friends from Grange spend the rest of their challenge money surprising hospital volunteers and military families with gift cards and purchasing emergency safety equipment for their local volunteer firefighters.
"Wow, what a feeling!" says Jackie after completing the challenge. "What a wonderful life-changing experience this has been. I am truly inspired by those volunteers we touched, and I plan on volunteering more of my time."
Once Cindy lets her friends and co-workers in on her plan, things start to come together. Everyone chips in for decorations, party favors and food to throw a luncheon for the expectant moms and the rest of the shelter's residents. Cindy then heads to Babies "R" Us for a $1,000 shopping spree, picking up plenty of baby essentials from car seats to strollers to cribs.
Cindy says it means a lot to help women from the Sojourner Truth House. "Being in a domestic violence situation is very stressful, and then to be pregnant also really makes it tough," she says. "So it's really neat to be able to do something for these women and take some of the pressure off of, ‘What am I going to do when I have these babies?'"
She and some 200 other students went trick-or-treating with photocopied $1 bills in hand that read, "The trick in life is figuring out how to make a difference. The treat is knowing you did." Their trick was to get people to trade them actual cash for their copied dollar bills…and it proved very successful!
With cash in hand, Lauren decides to help two local single mothers, Adrianne, a 20-year-old mother of three, and Ahvai, a 25-year-old mother of five. She takes the women on a shopping spree at Target, where they load up on necessities and gifts for the kids. Lauren also takes them to a salon to get their hair done, and she convinces them to spend $200 apiece on clothes for themselves. "Otherwise, they would have spent it all on their kids," she says.
Lauren says the Pay It Forward Challenge really opened her eyes. "I know that if I ever need to smile, all I have to do is remember this experience," she says. "This experience also helped me realize two other things—how kind some people are and how much need exists around me."
They bring their kids along to choose toys for the Marines' Toys for Tots program. "They heard stories about children who otherwise might not see a gift under their tree, and I hope they took a moment to appreciate all that they do have," Karen says.
With another project, they surprise 19 people by paying their grocery bills at the checkout. "Some of those people we spent $8 on, they were just as happy as the family that we spent $80 to $90 on. It wasn't the actual cash in the end, it was the act," Cindy says.
Getting the dog for Kyle, the boy with diabetes, is a costly but vital project. Kyle is sometimes rushed to the hospital because he does not know his blood sugar levels are dangerously off. Dusty, the dog, will alert adults when Kyle is having a problem so that he can get attention before it becomes a crisis. Training Dusty costs around $15,000. Karen, Cindy and Denise donate $1,000 to help Kyle's family with the expense.
After the challenge, Karen lists her "10 lessons learned." Among them—"There are people with ideas, and there are people with ideas who take action. We've had a number of acquaintances who have learned of our challenge and were eager to offer their suggestion on how to help others, some that did not require a huge amount of money. After a while, our response became, 'That's a great idea! Why don't you do that!?'"
But when Sharan offers the money to Amy, a music teacher at Pleasant Ridge Elementary in Cincinnati, Ohio, Amy asks if she can give all the money to one special family. Of all her students, Amy thinks the Carter family is most deserving. Diana Carter is a single parent raising seven children, including a nephew! The Carters live in a Habitat for Humanity house. Four of the seven children attend Pleasant Ridge, and three of the children will be in school soon enough. To make a better life for her family, Diana is going to beauty school full-time to get a better job. Still, she finds time to visit the school to stay connected.
Sharan visits the Carters in their home to present the $1,000 gift card. "This was a great experience," Sharan says. "It has made me rethink what I want to do for charity. We have made a list of good causes and now just have to decide what our next step will be."
When Victoria learns that Amy and Jayne are giving her $1,000 for a shopping spree at Wal-Mart and treating the family to lunch at a local café, Victoria pumps her fists in the air. "I'm very happy! I'm very happy!" she tells the newspaper.
With $1,000 left to spend, Amy and Jayne decide to address a problem Jayne sees daily as a lunchroom manager at an elementary school—children who come to school without enough money for lunch or a snack. The school lunch program covers some children, but not all who need it, Jayne says. The school also provides time for a milk break, but often children have nothing to drink while others sip the milk or juice they buy from the school.
Jayne and Amy establish an $800 milk fund and a $200 lunch fund for those who come to school empty handed. Two local businesses add another $400 to the milk fund!
Jan Sliper, the school's food service director, is very grateful. "Your gift will fill the gap," she says. "It has been proven that well-nourished kids are better able to succeed in the classroom. You can feel good that maybe, just maybe, you will have helped a child succeed in his day at school."
Their combined $2,000 touches many lives on a personal level. They buy toys and furniture for Tyler, a 3-year-old boy with cancer. Then, they pay to have his family stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Des Moines. And they donate money for one-night stays for another five families!
They also give cash to the family of Vicky, a woman preparing for a bone marrow transplant, and they buy gifts for Esther, a 78-year-old woman in the last stages of lung cancer. Even Esther is "paying it forward"—the gifts are for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren!
Following on a unique idea from workers for Iowa Hospice, Kim and Kay purchase 70 journals for terminally ill patients. The staff will use the journals to record special moments or wishes for their patients, which can be a keepsake for their families when their loved ones are no longer with them.
"The power of doing a small deed for someone else and the pleasure of seeing them happy is a huge reward," Kay says. "This was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life," Kim says.
Having watched their daughter go through this difficult time, Kim and Cheryl now know how difficult it is for parents separated from their babies. They decide to help other families with babies in neonatal intensive care.
They buy $300 Visa gift cards, and with help from their children, they put together gift bags for the families. The bags include picture frames, baby storybooks, classical music CDs, journals and pens. An anonymous donor contributes $800, allowing them to make more gift bags. In all, they help seven families with children in intensive care.
"We were truly humbled to be part of this challenge," Cheryl says. "We're grateful our children could participate in this project as well, giving them another experience of what it feels like to give to others."
"This shelter is 54-years-old and is severely out of date," Susanna says. "Over 50 percent of animals are euthanized each year. The facility is so poorly designed that the ventilation is poor and causes sickness to spread to healthy animals and animal waste falls onto the animals below in the cages."
Susanna gives her $1,000 challenge money to the shelter to vaccinate animals and improve conditions for them. But Susanna doesn't stop there, she offers to spay and neuter animals herself and perform whatever surgery they need!
"Hundreds of animals can be vaccinated and helped," she says. "I am very excited to help the animals that can't help themselves, and I feel very good to have boosted the spirits of everyone at the shelter," she says. "They were so excited to have received some money, as most of what they see is death and sickness of the poor helpless animals."