The Pay It Forward Challenge
The focal point of the center is the Nest, a no-fee, drop-in child care center for parents who are looking for a job or working to better their lives in other ways. Many of the children come from homes where domestic abuse is common, so just being there can be a healing experience for them.
The Jorgensens, who live in Cincinnati, Ohio, take their 3-year-old daughter with them to shop for the center. They load two cars with bags of things to be donated and then drive the 85 miles to Lexington. Sarah, the center's director, is thrilled! The food and supplies will serve the center for several months and the $300 grocery gift card the Jorgensen's donate for extras will provide lunch and snacks at the center for more than a month!
"I have many good days at the Nest. Today was a great day!" Sarah says. To top it off, the board decides to match the Jorgensen's donation, adding $1,000 to the $2,000 the Jorgensens already donated.
"[The project] brought my family together and gave us feeling of gratitude for everything we have," Janifer says. Mark agrees, "[I feel] honored to have helped so many people, but also a little sad because I should have done it sooner with some of my own money."
The cousins, partners in the Pay It Forward Challenge, tell Sheneil and her mother about the $2,000 donation by phone. The mother and daughter are thrilled they will have a way to pay some of their expenses when they travel to New York for the surgery.
"It brought tears to my eyes when I thought about Sheneil's plight and how her mother must feel to see her in pain," Regina says.
Through the donation, Jackie says she wants to give Sheneil hope to have a normal life. "And something to look forward to."
Rick and Michelle appreciate Carla's kindness. Just a month after their son Matthew died, Rick developed heart trouble. Since having bypass surgery, he has been unable to work full-time and money is tight.
Carla arranges to have a stone inscribed for Matthew a few weeks before Angel Park's annual vigil. Now, Rick and Michelle can visit the park to remember their son. "It's a peaceful place for them to go and reflect on their life with Matthew and think about him." To ease their financial burden, Carla gives them a $175 grocery gift certificate and a $200 gas card.
Carla gives her remaining $500 to St. Ann's Catholic School in Wadena. St. Ann's has been without a music teacher for a year when Carla steps in to donate money toward hiring a part-time teacher. Members of the school have been seeking a way to teach music to the children despite a lack of funds, and Carla's donation is the answer to their prayers.
"I have been truly blessed to have this opportunity," Carla says. "From the school I learned that prayer is so powerful, and from [Rick and Michelle] I learned to take nothing for granted and to cherish all that I have and love."
She gives hats, gloves, snow pants and coats to the Wadena-Deer Creek School and to Wadena County Social Services, a local organization providing social services for those in need.
"It felt very good to give to people that really need it. There are times I think that my family doesn't have a lot, and giving back made me realize that we do," Michelle says.
After putting her students on the path of giving, Katie gets busy with her own challenge. She hears about a mother and daughter living in a tiny, broken-down trailer with no heat, a leaking roof and very old furniture. She surprises them with a new washer and dryer, appliances that will save them from having to depend on friends for help with laundry. She also buys a new bed for 14-year-old Brittany and takes her on a $500 shopping spree!
"Once I started to look for families in need, there were so many, it was hard to choose just one," Katie says. "I feel more aware of the need that is out there and ashamed that I never thought to help before this experience. No one, especially a child, deserves to live the way this family was living, and I feel such an obligation to continue to help as much as I can."
Through the Artemis Center for Alternatives to Domestic Violence in Dayton, Ohio, Linda finds Christina, a mother of seven children from 2 to 15 years old. Christina, who works as a nurse's assistant, drives her kids to school and daycare every day in an aging van that she can't afford to repair. An inspection reveals that the van needs a new transmission, so AAMCO Transmissions steps up to donate the parts and labor—a $2,500 value! The crew at Carl's Body Shop takes care of other repairs, plus a tune-up, detailing and a remote starter so Christina doesn't have to go out in the cold to start the car.
With her car problems solved, Christina is free to use the $1,000 from Linda to buy necessary items for her family. A shopping spree yields a microwave, towels, an ironing board and clothes for all seven kids. But there's even more good news—Generation Dayton, a local organization of young professionals, has chosen Christina's family for their Adopt-a-Family program for the holidays! They'll provide a Christmas tree and presents for the entire family. And Al Sicard, a local businessman, hears about Linda's work with Christina and contributes another $1,000 to the Artemis Center's "Survivor Fund" to provide legal services.
Linda says the time spent completing the challenge was really gratifying. "I started with $1,000, and it is amazing how the word spreads and how many people I know, and many people I don't know, became involved."
As vice president of community reinvestment at National City Bank, Marya understands that investing in her city can be rewarding for all its citizens. In addition, she serves as a minister at Phillips Temple CME Church, and she sees some of the area's neediest families up close. According to the directors of "His Kids", a youth outreach program at the church, many of the children come in with colds during the winter because they don't have proper outerwear.
Marya's mission is to outfit every child who is a part of "His Kids" with a new warm coat, hat and gloves. Phillips Temple then matches her donation with another $1,000! Marya thoroughly enjoys the experience and hopes that Oprah continues the Pay It Forward Challenge. "I don't believe that there are any coincidences, and I believe one of the gifts that God gave you is your ability to give. So I encourage you to continue to do things like this and to see exponentially how you could change the world."
Jeff's former teachers and coaches praise his work ethic, determination and humility. "It's one thing to be an outstanding athlete, but when you're also a good person in the community, it just makes it that much better," Jeff's high school track coach says.
Jeff is simply overwhelmed when Nancy presents him with her $1,000 from the Pay It Forward Challenge, plus another $700 from friends and family and a $300 gift card for American Eagle clothing store. "Through every step of your life you have taken the right path," Nancy tells him. "I think that's phenomenal, and you need to be rewarded for it."
The food bank's Backpack Buddies program provides satchels full of nutritional meals and snacks for needy children to take home on weekends. Many of these children are on a free-lunch program at school with parents who work on the weekends, leaving it up to the kids to find nutritional meals at home. When they don't eat well over the weekend, Julie explains, the children aren't up to their full potential when they return to school on Monday.
With her Bank of America card in hand, Julie heads to Wal-Mart with some employees from the Lowcountry Food Bank. Their purchases will fill more than 300 backpacks. The Wal-Mart employees have a surprise for Julie as well—the store is matching her $1,000 donation to the Lowcountry Food Bank! And that's not all—Beaufort County School District superintendent Phil McDaniel and his wife contribute another $500 to the cause.
Inspired by the experience, Julie continues to raise money for the food bank. She's working with the Beaufort County School District to plan a fundraiser, splitting the proceeds between the schools' scholarship fund and the Backpack Buddies program. "Childhood poverty and hunger continues to be a problem," Julie says. "No child should ever go hungry in this country, yet they are. So I am determined to do more to add to this challenge."
The next recipient is Guardian Angel Community Services, which provides shelter for victims of domestic abuse. Sophia buys toiletries and gas cards for the residents and helps one woman visit her family for the holidays. Body Energetics spa donates free massages and facials to the residents, and a local car dealership agrees to sell Sophia a used car for one of the women for only $50!
Through friends, Sophia meets Katrina survivors Jill and Phil, who relocated to Illinois, leaving many of their belongings in Louisiana. The couple is disabled and living on a fixed income, so a trip to Wal-Mart for new clothes is greatly appreciated. Finally, Sophia helps Erica, a single mother who is unable to work due to an illness. Sophia helps Erica with her rent and buys some things for her young daughter, including cold medicine and a winter coat.
"To work with all these different strangers that I have never met really changed my life," Sophia says. "It has given me a whole perspective of how life can be and how life is. I would love to do it again and again and again."
Figuring out how to buy four laptops for only $1,000 is a challenge. Allison contacts CDW, a computer and technology company, for a discount on computers and is thrilled when they arrange for her to purchase two laptops with her money. CDW then matches the gift by donating two more computers for the teens! Allison raises another $1,000 to help purchase software for the new computers.
As if the computers weren't enough, the surprises keep coming. The Chicago Blackhawks invite Allison to make her presentation at the United Center. The boys initially think they're just taking a tour of the building. When they're presented with their new computers, they are shocked! And the giving continues—Blackhawks player Jim Vladimir chips in another $1,000 to the ICE program on behalf of the team, and the equipment crew gives each boy their choice of two hockey sticks—a value of $1,200!
Allison says she's still on a high from the experience. "I was overwhelmed with emotion just seeing the deep appreciation in the boys' and their parents' faces and knowing that I had been an instrumental part of so much happiness," she says.
The social worker who connects Lauren with the families tells her that giving the families cab fare—instead of a bus pass—will restore a measure of dignity they lost with their homes. "That hit me really hard," Lauren says. "People may look at my bank balance and think I don't have much, but I have so many resources in the way of love, opportunities, a warm home and good food."
Lauren spends another $100 on five Best Buy gift cards for students who were nominated for acts of kindness by their teachers at Georgia O'Keefe Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin. One student, Antoine, is rewarded for returning a bus ticket which dropped from another child's pocket. The principal likes Lauren's idea so much that she decides to make it a regular program at the school!
The remaining $760 goes to teach ballroom dancing to students. Thanks to Lauren, all eighth-graders at the school will spend several weeks learning ballroom dancing in their gym classes. "These kids will have this experience for weeks and weeks, and whatever they gain from it—whether it be a little more confidence or just some increase [in] flexibility—will be something that will stick with them for years to come."
One person does something nice for another and leaves a card saying "tag, you're it" asking the recipient to do something nice for someone else. This time it's the minister, Larry Booze, who gets tagged when Mike surprises him with a weekend stay at Starved Rock Lodge in Utica, Illinois.
Mike also fixes a broken sewage line for a family who cannot afford the repair. He hires a plumber and works as his assistant to fix the odorous problem! While Mike is working, 13-year-old Andrew, who lives in the house, writes a thank you note to Oprah. "Thanks for helping us with the plumbing," he writes. "My room was near the problem, and if it wasn't fixed, all my stuff I worked hard for would be a wreck. I worked for my money by working in the fields. I paid for football and pictures and so I am attaching a picture of me and my football clothes. You are my inspiration."
Mike and his wife, Jessica, had fun spending the challenge money. After the sewage repair, Jessica says, "We kind of both smell like sewage right now because Mike was helping the guy load the equipment and everything. So even though I stink—he stinks—I still love him, and it's been a fun adventure together."
Next, she goes to Wal-Mart to help Family House with items on its wish list. While shopping, she buys groceries for a family with four children. She returns to Family House and picks up the bill for a family with a son undergoing heart surgery.
After helping Family House, Jessica spends $500 to set up a scholarship in the name of Jonathan Beatty, a 22-year-old Marine corporal from Streator, Illinois, who was killed in Iraq. John was best friends with Jessica's nephew, Robert. Robert goes with Jessica to tell John's mother, Sheila, about the scholarship. For Sheila, it's a time to pull out photos and remember John as the happy, smiling teenager he was when he hung out with Robert.
After spending the last of her money on a $100 grocery gift card for a family of 13, Jessica reflects on her experience. "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that [the challenge money] made a huge difference. Whether it was a small act of kindness or the scholarship we gave, lives were touched. It was amazing."
Takae organizes volunteers for a cleanup day, then purchases cleaning supplies, T-shirts and food for the workers. "I hope those people living around the area will appreciate [the effort], or at least feel better about living here in Boyle Heights, where crime rates are high and a lot of violence still exists," Takae says.
She also has something special for one of the volunteers, Yoshiko Fujita. After six surgeries for a brain tumor, Yoshiko is on the road to recovery and ready to leave her wheelchair behind. Takae surprises Yoshiko with a new walker with wheels, so she can be more mobile. Yoshiko was happy to come out to help with the street cleaning project, saying, "Now I can take care of me, so next I have to do a good thing for other people."
The experience of "paying it forward" was so rewarding for Takae that even an accident totaling her car wasn't devastating. "I thought I would be depressed, but I was so happy that I went and helped others," she explains. "I was lucky, but who knows—maybe because I was doing my good deeds, someone was watching over me!"
Legirtha isn't done yet! For a pharmacy worker who always has a kind word, there are gift cards for shopping and dining, as well as beautiful flowers. A valued cashier at a local restaurant is surprised with a new camcorder. In a completely random act of kindness, Legirtha shocks a woman at the train station with a gift certificate for a night at a hotel. Finally, she stops by the Pacific Garden Mission, which serves nearly 600 men each day, to donate socks, underwear and other needed items.
For Legirtha, fulfilling this challenge is a blessing. "You never know how good you have it until you see how bad someone else has it," she says. "I thank God every day for blessing me with life, health and strength. I may not have everything that I think I should have, but I have everything I need."
Mary learns that the center, YWCA Sanctuary Homeless Children's Program, also needs toys, so she asks friends in her card club to bring toys to their next get-together. With generosity coming from so many directions, Mary has enough to provide a book, a canvas bag and a stuffed animal to every child who comes to the center.
"These books might be a way for these kids to 'pay it forward' to someone else, because you never know what doors they'll open," Mary says.
Mr. Potter, a Chicago public high school teacher, wants to buy his students copies of the book There Are No Children Here, a 1991 book by Alex Kotlowitz that chronicles the difficult lives of two boys living in Chicago public housing.
Mr. Potter's students will read the book, keep a journal and suggest policy changes based on problems they see in their own communities. Kylie buys the books for $472 and uses her remaining money to send a high school football team to the state playoffs. Paul Robeson High School loses the game, but Kylie is happy they got to go after a winning season.
The experience gives Kylie a greater sense of the need around her. "It's really easy in your everyday life to get caught up in whatever job you're doing or, you know, who's dating who," she says. " This has been a really great way for me to see how many people are doing so much for other people, and it really made me want to do more."
Alison gives the remainder of her challenge money to the Society for the Improvement of Conditions for Stray Animals in Kettering, Ohio. She picks the animal shelter based on its pet therapy program, which brings dogs and cats to hospitals, schools and nursing homes to delight residents and students.
Alison, a student teacher, arranges to have Lexie, a dog, brought to her school. When she asks SICSA how she can help their organization, they tell her that they're in need of supplies to fix up the shelter and to house the animals. So Alison buys a gift certificate at Lowe's and another at PetSmart!.
After struggling to come up with a plan, Alison is pleased with her choices. "There are so many worthy causes and everyone had an opinion on how I should spend [the money]," she says. "Finally, I just realized, all the causes are worthwhile, and the two I picked are just as worthy as any other."
Trudy, who attended Brigham Young University in the 1960s and '70s, knows how hard it is for some students to go home for the holidays. She decides to find four students who can't afford to go home and give them travel vouchers worth $250 each. She buys the vouchers and heads for her old college town to surprise the students.
Instead, the surprise is on Trudy. She hears about Melina, a student who is planning to drop out because she is $1,000 short on tuition for the winter term. So, instead of giving the travel vouchers, Trudy decides to keep them and withdraws $1,000 in cash to give to Melina.
Melina is stunned. She tells Trudy she had faith she would find a way to return to school, but she didn't know how. "She feels that her prayers have been answered. So do I!" Trudy says.
The week of planning took its toll on Trudy. "I lost three pounds even though I was eating several chocolate candy bars every day," she says. "The way this came together after a week of turmoil shows me that God uses people to work his miracles to bless his children."
To get those smiles, Stephanie decides to give extra big tips of more than $200 to four pizza deliverymen. She and her four small children open the phone book together and find the first company to call. They place the order with Pizza Hut and wait 45 minutes.
When the deliveryman arrives, he tells Stephanie the bill is $18.45 and she says, "Okay, here's $245." "How much change do you need back?" he asks. "It's all yours," Stephanie says. "I just wanted to brighten your day."
Stephanie and her children do this three more times. And, each time, the deliveryman is surprised and thinks it's a joke. By the time they've gone through the giving exercise, they have four large pizzas on their counter!
As a young mother, Tess had to leave her family and move to Manila to earn a living. She saw her son, Alvin, only once a year while he was growing up. Alvin married Leah and had a son of his own. Tess's hope for her daughter-in-law Leah—mother to mother—is that she can raise her son without having to live apart from him.
Tess, Alvin and Leah have been saving over many months to buy a stove to start a bakery, but the price just keeps going up and they worry they may never save enough. Enter Jamie, who uses her challenge money to buy the stove—and a mixer and microwave! She gives them the leftover cash for extra items to start their bakery.
Jamie regrets that she cannot present the gift in person, but she is on the phone when her parents deliver the news. Tess and Leah are overwhelmed. Later Leah calls Jamie to thank her. "She just kept saying over and over, 'This was our dream. This was our dream. You are an angel. We will bake, bake, bake.'"
A shopping spree for two new moms