I love hearing stories about strangers coming together, making connections, paying it forward, or doing something good for one another, even if it means something simple like buying someone a cup of coffee or helping someone push their car out of a snow ditch. I think it can be easy to let the world harden you if you let it but if you make a more conscious effort to get out of your head and attempt to make connections with others in seemingly irrelevant and fleeting moments, you can have some really incredible experiences. A week ago I wrote about a time when I had a conversation with a stranger in an airport that was an impactful moment for me (and hopefully him) and it made me start thinking about these small experiences of serendipity and coincidence. I reached out across the internet and asked people if they had any extraordinary experiences of a time when a stranger paid it forward. Here’s what they said.
1. A Christmas miracle
“I was working two jobs and going to school to be a social worker. I had left my abusive husband about 6 months earlier and was raising my two sons by myself. We were homeless for a period of time, about 2 months, when I was finally able to secure a low-income apartment. It was around the holidays and I had no money for Christmas. I was doing everything I could to support my kids but I still felt like a shitty mom. What kind of mom can’t even buy their kids presents for Christmas? In one of my social work classes we were doing a holiday project where the class was paired up with a local charity. The charity would draw a name from a hat of a needy family and the class was responsible for raising money to supply the family with presents and stuff for the kids. Well, I had my name on all sorts of lists with charities, mostly food banks, for the kids. All semester long my class and I worked on fundraising for this family, never knowing who it was we were going to be doing this for until the end. At least that’s what I thought anyway.
Well, the week before Christmas it was our time to meet up with the family and my professor asked me if he could just pick me up from my house before we went over there. I thought it was sort of odd but he was a real helpful fellow and knew my car wasn’t the best. Imagine how surprised I was when he showed up on the door step with the rest of my classmates, all of them with presents in their hands for my sons to open up!! Immediately we all started crying.
My professor told me none of them had known about my circumstances and they were so proud of me keeping a strong face while working and going to school full time. They had raised way more money than I knew about and they gave my kids the most amazing Christmas they’ve ever had – even to this day. My kids had never had much before and although they never said it, I knew they were probably envious of their classmates with all their game systems and Ipods or whatever. The biggest present they got was an Xbox 360 and I remember my sons looking at me in disbelief like they didn’t think it was really happening. And I was grateful because they bought us a lot of basic household stuff we wouldn’t have had. Now I’m graduated from college and we’re doing much better than we ever were but this was one of the sweetest moments I’ve experienced in my life.” – Tanya
2. A much needed refreshment
“One time I was early for a coffee date and I realized I forgot to brush my teeth before I came out. It had been a really hectic day at work. I promise I’m not gross!! I asked a woman in line if she had any gum. She asked why and I said, “Well, there’s a girl about to be here any minute, and I’m really excited about this date.” The woman just laughed and dug through her purse and gave me some. 10 minutes later my date came. I’ll never forget the way she looked when she walked in. We had an amazing time and she let me kiss her at the end of it! Now, obviously, I don’t know if this story counts as ‘paying it forward’ and I’ll never know if it made that much of a difference, if we would have ended up together or not, but the girl from that date has been my girl for over five years now and I feel like I’m the luckiest man on earth.” – Michael
3. Homeless in Chicago
When I was 19 years old I was homeless on the streets of Chicago for about 4 months. I was a college kid and I didn’t want anyone to know about my situation. My mom had died from cancer and my dad was a deadbeat. I’d spend as much time in the library or coffeeshops as I could and I always tried to make it look like I was just really busy and engrossed in my studies so I didn’t raise any questions. And if anyone’s been to Chicago in the winter you know that’s the worst time to be living on the streets.
One night an older man I had seen in the coffeeshop started chatting me up. He said he had seen me in here and wanted to know why I wasn’t going home for supper or to bed late at night. He asked if I lived on coffee. I laughed about it at first but after he kept prying I ended up breaking down and telling him my story, telling him I was in the process of getting things back on track, which was just bullshit. The next night he came back in and gave me a backpack filled with some new clothes, basic toiletry and hygiene items, gift cards to the grocery store and food places around campus. He told me he had an apartment above his garage I could stay in until I got back on my feet if I was interested. That was 2 years ago and now I’m getting ready to finally graduate college. It hasn’t been an easy road and I’ve had a lot of ups and downs but if that man wouldn’t have taken a chance on me I don’t know if I would have survived on the streets much longer. He changed my life by just asking me about who I was and taking a risk by helping out a young kid. I don’t know if much any other people would do that. He’s the only person I consider family now and I’m just excited I’ll actually have someone to be at my graduation this spring. What I’ve learned is that everyone has a story. It’s just up to us to open ourselves up and get past the surface.” – Chase
4. 10 dozen yellow roses
I was waiting for the train one day when a woman started talking to me. She was early 40s, friendly, and traveling by herself. This was…gosh…like 4 years ago? Anyway, she asked me what I was up to and where I was going. I told her I was headed home to see my mom who had recently just found out she was sick with lung cancer. We talked for awhile about it until I had to board my train. Before I went to leave she asked me the town I was going to and my mom’s name. I told her and she said, “Okay. Thanks.” and just smiled at me. I was like, hmm wonder what that was about. Two days after I was at my mom’s 10 dozen yellow roses were delivered to her house. It was incredible!! We were totally perplexed as to who could have sent these but then I remembered – I had told that woman my mom’s favorite flower and how I was hoping to find a flower shop to get her something nice. I have to say, it completely cheered my mom up. She just couldn’t believe a stranger would go to the trouble or expense of doing this. She called her church friends and they all came over to see. Her entire bedroom was covered with these gorgeous yellow roses. It was such a nice memory. Ever since then if I try to remember to stop and strike up a conversation with strangers when I’m traveling and I’ve paid it forward a couple of times since that happened. Sometimes I think about how much different the world could be if we could all show each other a bit more kindness. – Ray
5. “It gave me hope again…”
Last year I was going through a really difficult time. I had just been laid off, my husband and I had decided to separate, and I was doing my best to keep a happy face for our 3 kids. They had tons of questions, like why were we getting shut off notifications and why I had canceled the cable and internet. Let’s just say it was a really dark time. One day we went grocery shopping and when I went to check out the cashier told me my card was declined. I was like, what? That has to be a mistake. Let me call the bank. So I called the bank, panicking, wondering what the hell is going on. Sure enough, they tell me my account is negative $200 because the electric company had done an automatic payment from my checking account and I had forgotten to cancel the auto-pay.
I was so frustrated I started to cry because there was just nothing I could do. My ex was out of town and there wasn’t anyone else I could call to buy groceries. I had no clue where my next paycheck was going to come in because my unemployment had been denied. Embarrassed for having to deal with this issue and for holding the line up, I told the cashier I guess they’d have to put the groceries back because I didn’t have any money.
A young couple in probably their late 20s or early 30s in line next to me asked me how much the total was. I told them and explained the situation. They not only offered to pay for my groceries but even asked the cashier for a $50 gift card to the store for a future trip. It was so so kind of them. I can’t imagine they made a lot of money and it was going completely out of their way to do it but seriously, that fed my kids for the next few weeks and I don’t know…I guess you could just say it gave me hope again. After I got back on my feet I’ve made it a point to donate to local food banks or sometimes I’ll just buy someone’s coffee behind me in line at a cafe. I think sometimes the universe just puts people in your life at the time you need it the most.” – Carol