7 True Pay-It-Forward Stories That Brought About Real Change
Not just a one-off act.
Paying it forward is a simple concept that doesn’t require much effort and yet we’re all very conditioned to be skeptical of helping others, especially those we don’t know. We live in a fast-paced world, and the demands of daily life have a tendency to force us inward and become guarded against those who need help, be they beggars on the street, people flyering for a good cause or random passersby. So that makes any act of kindness seemingly random just because it’s not programmed into our lives to naturally pay it forward .
Fortunately, to many people out there, paying it forward isn’t just a nice gesture, but second nature. Helping other people is in their DNA and they’re shocked to find out when people make a big fuss about their selfless contributions. These are the people who have the power to bring about real positive change to the world and often do — for them, the impetus for doing a good deed is not the possible pat on the back they’ll get for doing so. It’s from an honest intention to help others out and nothing more.
It’s not at all a stretch to call these kinds of people heroes even if they don’t see themselves that way. To celebrate their selflessness, here are seven true pay-it-forward stories that really made a difference:
1. A fatherless boy and his $20 gift.
After finding a $20 bill in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel, 8-year-old Myles Eckert did what few kids his age or even adults much older than him would do. He gave it to another customer he spotted — a soldier, Lt. Col. Frank Dailey — with this note:
“Dear Soldier — my dad was a soldier. He’s in heaven now. I found this 20 dollars in the parking lot when we got here. We like to pay it forward in my family. It’s your lucky day! Thank you for your service. Myles Eckert, a gold star kid.”
Needless to say, Dailey was touched by the gesture and it didn’t take long for it to go viral. After a CBS story on Myles was shared via email and social over half a million times, he was invited to appear on Ellen and visit with former President George W. Bush at his presidential library. A year later, his family is spearheading a nonprofit organization called the Power of 20 with the goal of giving on an even greater scale to charities and families in need — all with the help of everyday citizens inspired by Myles’ one small but great act.
2. The mountain climber who stopped to notice the people helping him.
Vern Jones was standing triumphantly at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro with his family, wishing he could buy a T-shirt or some other kind of gear to mark the accomplishment. That was hard to come by in Tanzania, Africa, where the mountain resides, so he decided to make a clothing line himself. One wrinkle, though: he wanted to give back to the guides and porters who helped him up the mountain, many of whom make less than $10 per hour and scale the mountain in simple tennis shoes as opposed to the expensive hiking boots many climbers buy.
The result was Kili Summit Club , a place where people can not only share pictures and stories of their climb, but buy merchandise whose proceeds go in large part to porters and guides. It was a simple idea that makes a huge difference for people whose dangerous jobs go mostly unnoticed.
3. The formerly homeless couple who returned to keep the help going.
Mark Redmond, the executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington, Vt., was taking the day off when he decided to stop by the office and pick up some mail. He saw a young couple at the receptionist’s desk who wasn’t receiving any help, and sped right by because he didn’t want to get sucked away from his mission of getting in and out quick. Then he thought better of it , realizing it would only take a second to help out. He asked the man why they were there, who responded that he and his wife were there to donate a bag of clothes.
Thanking them for their contribution and chatting further, Redmond discovered that the couple had in fact separately used the facility’s services themselves in tougher times. Both homeless, they stayed at the shelter for a period of time, where they met and fell in love. To Redmond’s shock, they had been married four years at that point and were returning to help out youth in need as they had once been helped. An incredible pay-it-forward story.
4. The 378-person-long Starbucks line of good deeds.
Most pay-it-forward lines in which someone pays for the order behind them don’t last more than a few people, if even that. But after a woman at a Starbucks in St. Petersburg, Fla. , paid for her iced coffee and the caramel macchiato a customer behind her ordered, the line continued for a whopping 378 people. Everyone accepted their free drink and paid for the customer behind them all the way up until 6 p.m. that night when the 379th person ordered a coffee and declined to pay for the next one. Apparently they didn’t understand the concept of paying it forward, but it’s pretty incredible it lasted that long to begin with.
5. The booster seat this cop didn’t have to buy.
When Emmett Township Public Safety Officer Ben Hall pulled over a woman for a traffic violation, he saw that her 5-year-old son wasn’t sitting in a booster seat, which he absolutely should have been in. Instead of giving Alexis DeLorenzo a ticket, Hall drove promptly over to Walmart , given that DeLorenzo said she knew the boy should be in a booster seat but couldn’t afford one.
“It was the easiest 50 bucks I ever spent,” he told Fox.
DeLorenzo was beyond touched by the gesture, and said, “As soon as I can afford it, I will be paying forward.”
6. The Post-Its that stand for free slices.
Mason Wartman runs a pizza shop in Philadelphia appropriately named Wartman’s. In an effort to help out homeless people in the city, which is a serious issue, he hatched a plan to allow customers to spend an extra dollar to prepay for a slice of pizza, then put a Post-It on the wall. Homeless people could then redeem the Post-It for a free slice, and as of February, the restaurant had given away more than 10,000 slices of pizza. Paying it forward at its best.
7. Reddit’s aid to teachers so they can do their best work.
According to a recent survey taken by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, teachers pay for 77 percent of the supplies needed in the classroom. RedditGifts wanted to change that.
The program matches donators with teachers to ship them the supplies that they need to focus on teaching their kids without worrying about a lack of resources. As of August, 14,000 teachers had signed up for help and 10,000 donators had answered the call. It’s a brilliant, easy way to help — the best kind of paying it forward that exists.
Have any amazing pay it forward stories of your own? Share in the comments below!
Cover image: Wikimedia
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ONE morning in December of 2012, at the drive-through window of a Tim Hortons coffee shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a customer paid for her order and then picked up the tab for the stranger in the car behind her in line. Then that customer paid the bill for the following customer in line — and so on, for the next 226 customers, in a three-hour sequence of spontaneous generosity.
It turns out that such “pay it forward” chains are not unheard-of at Tim Hortons (though they are usually much shorter), and news outlets have reported the emergence of many such chains in a variety of restaurant drive-throughs and tollbooths throughout North America. Last year, a Chick-fil-A in Houston experienced a 67-car chain. A few months later, a Heav’nly Donuts in Amesbury, Mass., had a run of 55 cars.
Why do these things happen? One possibility is that generosity among strangers can be socially contagious. According to this theory, if you receive or observe an act of help, you become more likely to help others, even if your own action won’t be directly reciprocated or rewarded. Rather than repay someone for helping, you “pay it forward” — a phrase popularized by Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 1999 novel of that title (later turned into a movie of the same name).
In recent years, social scientists have conducted experiments demonstrating that the effect of a single act of kindness can in fact ripple through a social network, setting off chains of generosity that reach far beyond the original act. But whether it is enough to merely witness a generous act, rather than actually benefit from one, has been an open question.
In an experiment the results of which were published last month in the journal PLoS One, we studied both possibilities. We found that receiving and observing generosity can both significantly increase your likelihood of being generous toward a stranger, but that if you observe a high enough level of generosity, your willingness to help suffers — you become a “bystander” who feels that help is no longer needed.
For our study, we recruited more than 600 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace where users advertise tasks to be completed in exchange for money. We enlisted them to participate in something we called the Invitation Game. They were informed that they could participate in the game and earn a base payment in cash and a cash bonus — but only if they received an email invitation.
To get the game started, we created a few invitations that we sent to randomly chosen participants. Those who received invitations were then informed that they had been assigned to play the game in a group of 150 people. Each “invitee” had the opportunity to create one additional invitation for a stranger in his group if he gave back the bonus and earned only the base payment. That invitation would be sent anonymously to the stranger.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of four situations: receiving help (they got an anonymous donated invitation created by another participant); observing help (they witnessed other participants anonymously donating invitations); receiving and observing help; and neither. (In the “neither” condition, participants received their invitation directly from the experimenters, which established a baseline condition against which to compare what happened when participants received or observed help, or both.) Then we observed how the participants chose to act in each situation.
What did we find out? The bad news was that the willingness to help suffered from what social psychologists call “the bystander effect”: When participants observed a low level of helping, it increased their own likelihood of helping; but when they observed a high level of helping, they did not themselves help — they appeared to feel that their own sacrifice was no longer needed. This finding was consistent with many previous studies of “social loafing,” “free riding” and “diffusion of responsibility.”
The good news was that receiving help reliably increased the likelihood of being generous toward a stranger, and that participants who benefited from generosity were also less susceptible to the bystander effect when they themselves observed high levels of helping in their group.
We conclude that observing an act of kindness is likely to play an important role in setting a cascade of generosity in motion, since many people can potentially observe a single act of helping. But we found that it was receiving help that sustained the cascade as it spread through the group.
Our research suggests that the next time you stop to help a stranger, you may be helping not only this one particular individual but potentially many others downstream. And who knows? In the end, maybe what goes around will come around.
Milena Tsvetkova is a doctoral candidate in sociology and Michael Macy is a professor of sociology, both at Cornell University.
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