30 Real Life “Pay it Forward” Stories That Will Warm Your Heart
Keep those Kleenex close by, friend.
Whether or not you’ve seen the 2000 film “Pay It Forward”—in which a young elementary schooler played by Haley Joel Osment performs good deeds for strangers and encourages them to “pay it forward,” setting in motion a virtuous cycle of good deeds that eventually change the world for the better—you’ll be happy to know that such kindness in the world does indeed exist. Need proof? Simply read on. Here we’ve gathered the perfect collection of heartwarming stories about the power of selfless human kindness. But be forewarned: You’d be smart to keep a box of Kleenex at the ready. And for more positive tales, check out these 20 Adorable “How We Met” Stories That Will Warm Your Heart.
The boy who touched a veteran’s life.
When then-eight-year-old Myles Eckert found a $20 bill in a Cracker Barrel parking lot, instead of pocketing it, he paid it forward by handing it to a nearby customer. As it turns out, Eckert made the decision to give this money to veteran Lt. Col. Frank Dailey because his father had died while in combat in Iraq.
After this story went viral, Eckert was afforded the opportunity to appear on Ellen and visit former president George W. Bush’sPresidential Library. Years later, Eckert and his family created the Power of 20 campaign with the intention to help other veterans and their families. And for more reasons to be grateful, check out these 20 Science-Backed Benefits of Gratitude.
The mountain climber who wanted to give back to the poor guides and workers in Africa.
After Vern Jones and his family successfully reached the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, he was quick to recognize the help that he had received from the local guides and workers on the mountain. Since he knew that many of them faced dangerous conditions every day and often didn’t make more than $10 an hour, Jones decided to create a business to recognize and fund these workers.
Kili Summit Club, Jones’ passion project, allows other Mount Kilimanjaro climbers to pay merchandise before or after their trek, with proceeds going directly back to the guides who help climbers achieve their dreams every day.
The formerly homeless couple who decided to help others in need.
During a routine day at Mark Redmond’s non-profit, Spectrum Youth and Family Services (pictured left), he met a formerly homeless looking to donate clothes and supplies. Not only that, but he met a couple who actually met while living in his shelter. Redmond was so moved that he wrote a tribute to the couple and to the pay-it-forward movement.
“Yes, thank those people who helped you in various ways in your life, be they parents, relatives, coaches, pastors, friends, job supervisors, whomever. But the truest way to honor those people is to turn around and help the people who are struggling now, even if you don’t know their names, and even if they never know yours,” he said. And for heroes of the furry (i.e., non-animal) variety, check out these 40 Animals That Are Real-Life Heroes.
The 378 Starbucks customers who paid their cup of coffee forward in one day.
Yes, that’s right—a woman in St. Petersburg, Florida, started a pay-it-forward movement that motivated 377 other customers to treat complete strangers to a cup of coffee in 2014. This 11-hour chain of kindness did eventually end, but inspired many other chain events just like this one.
The public safety officer who bought a woman a booster seat for her child.
Instead of handing Alexis DeLorenzo a ticket for not securing her child in a booster seat, public safety officer Ben Hall, upon hearing that she couldn’t afford the price of a booster seat, set out to buy her one—right then and there.
“It was the easiest 50 bucks I ever spent. It’s something that anybody in the same position, in our position, would do. I in no way, shape or form expect to be paid back. It is a ‘pay it forward’ situation completely,” he told Fox News. And for ways to gain a new perspective of the world around you, check out these 40 Ways Over-40 People View the World Differently.
The pizza shop owner who provides free slices of pizza to the homeless.
Mason Wartman of Wartman’s pizza restaurant in Philadelphia started his own pay-it-forward movement, allowing customers to donate an extra dollar to provide a free slice of pizza to the homeless.
In an Upworthy video from 2015, Wartman explained how the system worked. Basically, a customer donates a dollar, and that is documented in a post-it note that gets stuck to the wall. Then, a homeless person can come into the shop and cash in a post-it note for their free slice of pizza. As of 2015, Wartman had given away around 10,000 slices of pizza.
The woman in Detroit who created a “Pie-it-Forward” program in her bakery.
Similar to Wartman’s business model, Lisa Ludwinski created a cleverly named “Pie-it-Forward” program in her bakery, Sister Pie, in Detroit, Michigan. In this business model, any customer can come in and take a coupon from the wall that a previous customer has paid for.
The woman who helped mothers and others in need in St. Louis.
Carolyn Hassett, after witnessing first-hand the trials and tribulations that homeless pregnant women faced as a volunteer at Our Lady’s Inn shelter in St. Louis, decided to donate much of her time to track down a former resident.
Jennifer, a struggling mother of three, was very overwhelmed with gratitude when Hassett presented her with gas, rent, car insurance, and a trip to Wal-Mart to buy food and supplies. “It was great to know that I had given the money to the right person, and it came just at the right time. I couldn’t have been more sure that God placed Jen in my life for this day,” Hassett told Oprah.com.
The woman who paid a stranger’s cancer-related medical bills.
After losing her mother to a rare form of cancer, Christina Hormuth made it her mission to spread awareness about the more rare forms of cancer. When Hormuth meets Rebecca, a 26-year-old struggling with colon cancer, she decides to help her pay for her treatments and surgeries, amid the growing costs of her illness.
“This has motivated me to step up and help spread the awareness of rare cancers that don’t get enough exposure to the public,” Hormuth told Oprah.com. Since 2006, Hormuth as been successful at raising thousands of dollars to help others like Rebecca pay for their cancer-related medical costs.
The Michigan woman who hands out blankets and clothes to the homeless.
In Ypsilanti, Michigan, Sheril Hurt changes the lives of those in need nearly every day. Whether she’s passing out clothes and Bibles to the homeless or becoming a mentor to young boys like Larell and Shaunte who also want to affect their neighborhood in a positive way, Hurt just wants to make others feel like they have a purpose.
More than that, however, Hurt wants others to lend a helping hand as well. “I would hope for everybody else that we have helped to give back and help someone else as well,” Hurt told Oprah.com.
The lottery winners who build a fire station for their town.
When Mark Hill and his family won the Powerball Lottery ($136.5 million after taxes), their first instinct was to finally give back to the community that had saved his father’s life—twice. Not only did they fund a state-of-the-art fire station, the Hills decided to also build a new baseball field and acquire land for a new sewage treatment plant.
“I’m proud to know there’s an ambulance service right here, I mean, how many towns of 500 people have an ambulance service that’s manned 24-7? I’m proud to be part of that,” Mark Hill told KMBC News.
The man who thanked a woman for paying for his groceries by donating $10,000 to cancer treatment in her name.
For Tracy Warshal, a simple act of kindness led to an even greater contribution to the common good. Back in 2015 during the holiday season, Warshal noticed that a man ahead of her in line at the grocery store seemed to have forgotten his wallet and couldn’t pay for the few items that he had accumulated.
Without thinking, Warshal paid for his items, and after the transaction was complete, the stranger asked for her name and took notice of her shirt, displaying where she worked (pictured above). Then, about a month later, Warshal, then working as a scheduling coordinator for the Piedmont Cancer Institute in Georgia, was approached by two representatives from the Piedmont Foundation who informed her that a man wished to donate $10,000 to the foundation in her name.
In fact, the man (who still wishes to remain anonymous) went so far as to contact Piedmont Healthcare’s Vice President of Philanthropy, Mendal Bouknight, to track Warshal down, since he was only aware of her first name and employer printed on the shirt that she was wearing at the grocery store. “I’m just excited that one small little gesture made a huge difference and impact on a lot of people. I hope it makes people think twice about doing something small to somebody,” she told ABC News.
The cop who gives out flowers instead of tickets on Valentine’s Day.
Instead of handing out tickets to traffic offenders in Manitoba, Canada, Constable Kyle Isenor decided to embrace the spirit of Cupid on Valentine’s Day and handed out flowers and cards to everyone that he pulled over.
Using his own money, Isenor purchased 30 roses, cards, and assorted flowers to hand out to traffic offenders. For Laurie Burbine, who received a rose from Isenor, this meant receiving a hockey-themed card that read: “Happy Valentine’s Day from the Ste. Anne police. P.S. Fix the headlight.”
The tow-truck driver who uses his tips to buy clothes for the needy.
When Daniel Sadler, a tow truck driver from Kernersville, North Carolina, saw a program about the freezing temperatures and the homeless population struggling to survive through it, he decided to lend a helping hand.
Using the tips he receives on various tow jobs, Sadler pays it forward to the homeless population in his hometown, providing them with anything from hats and gloves to bottles of water. “You don’t need to be wealthy to help anybody. You can help somebody with 50 cents. You can help somebody buy a soda—anything helps,” he told the Huffington Post.
The man who gave a Christmas card to a grieving stranger.
During the holiday season in 2013, Charleen Colón experienced the loss of her mother. During one of the more painful moments of the grieving process, just two days before Christmas, Colón received a Christmas card in the mail from a man whom she had never met before, Christopher Chiarenza.
The card read: “Charleen, I don’t know you, but from a mutual friend I heard about your mom’s recent passing. I am positive your mom would want you to have everything on your Christmas list. God Bless!” Inside of the card: $500 in gift cards. Though she didn’t know it at the time, Chiarenza was only passing on the kindness that her mother had shown him during a time of need.
The woman who bought a meal for a group of strangers.
Kenesha Chalemon discovered that kindness knew no limits on the day that she decided to indulge in a few sweet treats with her friends at a doughnut shop in Delray Beach, Florida.
Since this excursion to Delray Beach was completely spontaneous for the group, they quickly realized that they barely had enough money to buy a doughnut. Lucky for them, when the friends offered a chair in the busy shop to an older woman, she offered to buy the group whatever they pleased from the menu.
“I was more than open to her genuine, kind approach. Receiving a ‘handout’ from a rich white woman would normally bring hesitation in any underprivileged black kid’s mind, but she had changed my conception of her by acknowledging me and reciprocating my basic act of kindness. This opened my eyes to the fact that kindness is contagious and that you reap what you sow in a good way, as well,” Chalemon said.
The football players who started a chain of “paying it forward” at a restaurant in Michigan.
After a group of six Lake Orion High School football players had their meals paid for by a kind man at Iris Café in Michigan, they decided to pay his generosity forward, sparking an entire movement at the restaurant.
The next day, more than 30 people paid their meals forward, with approximately 30 others contributing to a jar that the restaurant staff used to pay for other customers’ meals throughout the following week. “Everyone was shocked when we would tell them their bill was paid and they would keep leaving more money. It feels great to be part of a community that’s so willing to pay it forward,” restaurant owner Jill Gageby told ABC News.
The girl who raises money to buy dolls for cancer patients.
At first, 6-year-old Emily Daniels from Beaver, West Virginia, didn’t want to wear glasses—she didn’t want to be different from the other kids her age. Fortunately, her mother had a great idea–get glasses for her American Girl doll as well.
For Emily, this act of kindness by her mother made her wonder why all girls who were different couldn’t have dolls that reflected their unique personalities. Finally, when she noticed the American Girl dolls without hair, designed for those who may have struggled with cancer or other illness, she decided to make it her mission to raise money to purchase these dolls for girls and families in need. To help Emily on her mission to give joy to other girls struggling with medical issues, donate to her GoFundMe fundraiser.
The paramedic who pays for grieving daughter’s parking ticket.
When paramedic Marc Primrose found Rosemary Morgan’s parking ticket in the ambulance after transporting her mother to the hospital, he decided to relieve some of the stress from her life and pay the $129 fee.
This act of kindness became even more important when it was discovered that Morgan’s mother had died in the hospital. “It was my instinct not to just let this go because someone would have ended up with late fees and I didn’t want that to happen. I’m just glad that it helped,” Primrose told the Whittlesea Leader.
The high school students who paid their meal forward.
After high school students Emily Hermanson and Savannah Cantrell had their meal paid for a pair of kind strangers, they decided to pay that generosity forward by handing out donuts and bottles of water to the surrounding homeless community in Titusville, Florida.
“We just like to spread love and kindness. Some people are so negative about everything, so I wanted to spread kindness and remind people you don’t have to go that far out of the way to make someone’s day,” Cantrell told Florida Today. The pair graduated from high school in May and plan to continue their giving efforts throughout college as well.
The 167 McDonald’s customers who paid their meal forward in Indiana.
A McDonald’s in Scottsburg, Indiana, was only trying to treat a father on Father’s Day when she started the 167-driver pay it forward movement. Between 8:30 p.m. and midnight, when the restaurant closed, each customer paid for the person’s meal in the car behind them—often exceeding the cost of their own desired meal. “I was proud to experience the Scottsburg community come together in this act of kindness under the Golden Arches,” Frank Ward, owner of the Scottsburg McDonald’s, told ABC News.
The woman who offered a hug to a stranger in distress.
Before Margena Holmes knew that her son was on the autism spectrum, his crying fits would endlessly perplex and exhaust her. During a particularly bad crying spell while grocery shopping, Holmes was met with unkind stares from the fellow shoppers in the check out line.
When she finally got to her car, put her son in his car seat, and shut the door, she herself had begun to cry. It was at this moment that an older woman approached Holmes, saying: “I can’t offer any advice, but I can give you a hug,” and consoled her while she cried. To this day, Holmes is still grateful to that woman for going out of her way to show kindness to a stranger, she told Today.
The woman who purchased medicine for a new mom.
When Vicky Garza’s first child was only a month old, he came down with a terrible ear infection that left him crying throughout the day and night. After waiting in the emergency room for over two hours, the doctor finally prescribed her son some medication for the infection, though, unfortunately for Garza, the medicine ended up costing around $129—well over her price range as a new mother.
Just as she was getting ready to call her mother to help out with the payment, an older woman walked up to her with a bag—she had paid for the ear drops after seeing Garza struggle to find the money. When Garza asked if she could pay the woman back, she just told her to pay her kindness forward.
The man who stood up for a woman being bullied in the workplace.
In 1984, Johnnie King Billings was the first woman to hold a leadership position at her local factory—and many men in the factory were not happy about working alongside a woman. In fact, at one point, things got so bad that Billings discovered that a memo had been sent around the factory by her bosses, detailing the ways that they were going to get rid of her.
But, just as she thought that sexism would effectively end her career, a male engineer stood up for her, telling the others involved in this scheme that what they were doing was wrong and that she deserved a chance just like anybody else. Thanks to that kind engineer, the men trying to fire her were stopped in their tracks and Billings had a successful career at the factory for over 25 years.
The friend who fulfilled a man’s childhood dream.
Growing up, John Delaney always wanted to see the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. Unfortunately, his parents were never able to fulfill his dream, and he just accepted the fact that he would never get to see the famous music hall in all of its lit-up glory.
Then, decades later, a friend of Delaney’s surprised him with a trip to New York City—though didn’t reveal to him that she had purchased tickets to see the Christmas Spectacular until they arrived at the long line winding around Radio City Music Hall. “I think it’s safe to say I teared up throughout the whole show with the biggest childlike smile on my face. Greatest thing anyone has done for me,” he told Today.
The woman’s employer who bought her children Christmas presents.
During a particularly rough time in Kathy Collier’s life, she was working at a collection agency and her husband was unemployed. Because Collier had just recently been hired on as a debt collector, the holiday season was looking very bleak for her three children, ages one, two, and six.
Despite feeling terrible about her lack of participation in the gift exchange at the collection agency, Collier finally admitted to her company that she just couldn’t afford to exchange a gift with someone at work—let alone afford to buy her own children Christmas presents. Fortunately for Collier, her coworkers, despite only knowing a little about the latest hire, bought her children trash bags full of toys for the holidays.
The woman in New York City who hands out blankets, gloves, and hats to the homeless.
Emily Borghard is better known as the “blanket fairy” in the subway stations of New York City, where she hands out blankets, gloves, and hats to the homeless. Acting as a part of the subway vigilante group The Guardian Angels, Borghard knows a thing or two about relying on others for help during times of need.
Borghard suffers from chronic seizures and experienced one while she was driving a car in her hometown in upstate New York in 2005. When her car plunged into a creek, good Samaritans rushed to her rescue—and now she just wants to do the same for others. “I think sometimes people think that paying it forward has to be something huge, but it can be a small act of kindness. And that little extra, hello, I’m paying attention to you might change their day,” she told NPR.
The firefighters who pay their free meal forward.
After suffering through a long night of putting out a warehouse fire in New Jersey, Tim Young and Paul Hullings just wanted a hot meal. To their surprise, their waitress at the 130 Diner in Delran, New Jersey, Liz Woodward, appreciated the courage and bravery that these two firefighters displayed in the face of fear every day, and kindly paid for their meal.
On the check (pictured above), Woodward thanks the men for all that they do for the community. As it turns out, the two firefighters were so touched that, upon finding out that Woodward was currently raising money to give her quadriplegic father a wheelchair-accessible fan, they pooled their resources and were able to raise $67,000 for her father—$50,000 over the desired amount. “This is just one example of how so many people in this world have incredible hearts and they pay it forward so the circle keeps on moving,” Woodward told Today.
The woman who honors good Samaritan who died doing a good deed.
Twenty-eight-year-old Matthew Jackson permanently changed the lives of many in his hometown of San Diego—including Jamie-Lynne Knighten, a mother of two who was assisted by Jackson when her credit card was declined in the check out lane of a grocery store.
He stepped up to pay her $200 grocery bill with only one condition: pay it forward. When Knighten eventually tracked down the good Samaritan at the gym where he worked, she was told by his manager, Angela Lavinder, that he had died just one day after paying for her bill; Jackson had gotten into a fatal car crash while driving a coworker to the gym whose car had broken down. In order to respect his wishes and “pay it forward,” Knighten created a Facebook page called MatthewsLegacy, where others can share their tales of good deeds.
The woman with a terminal disease who gave others money to pay forward.
“I’m no Mother Teresa. I can be pretty crusty at times,” Dina Salivan told the Calgary Herald. Though, despite being somewhat of a firecracker, Salivan decided to turn her terminal cancer diagnosis into a positive experience.
During the last 6 months of her life, Salivan set aside $50,000 to distribute among 70 friends, instructing each of them to pick their favorite charity and donate to a cause that they believe in. For Salivan, the terminal illness reminded her of what’s most important in life. “The beauty and kindness of people has always been there. If I hadn’t gotten sick, I wouldn’t have seen it. It’s brought me joy, at a time when I need it most,” she said. And for more ways to treat yourself with a little more kindness, check out these 50 Easy Ways to Be Nicer to Yourself.
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