The Kindness of Strangers

Yesterday, I was feeling kind of frustrated and unhappy because people were being cranky at me for voicing my opinion on Twitter about soda being unhealthy. I know. Why the hell are people cranky at me about something that everyone knows has zero health benefits? And why was that bothering me? Whatever. All I knew was I needed to get offline and go do something positive to cancel out the negative. I wanted to go out and do something kind for a stranger.

A friend of mine suggested going to Target and paying off toys that people had put on layaway for Christmas. This sounded like the perfect idea so I threw on my shoes and went straight to a Target. After speaking with the manager and their HR person about my plan, they said they don’t offer layaway to their customers, but suggested a few stores nearby that might. I decided on Toys R Us since my plan was to find someone who was trying to buy toys for their kids anyway.

When I spoke to the manager at this particular Toys R Us about what I wanted to do, she kept looking at me like she couldn’t understand what I was asking. Apparently, no one has ever asked to do this for someone else with merchandise on layaway in their store before.  I guess that makes sense. It’s not like a gift registry where people come in and buy things you requested. It’s things you’ve chosen for your child but can’t afford to pay for all at once, so you put it on a payment plan for yourself. She told me the deadline for the people with items on layaway to pay it off and pick them up was December 15th. We scrolled the computer together so I could choose some families to help.

These people have no idea who I am and I don’t know them either. There were hundreds of names staring back at me from the screen. I had no idea how to choose, so I based my decision on layaways that were set up in the middle of October, when Christmas layaway accounts could be started, because these people obviously needed as much time as possible to pay them off. I chose an equal number of men with accounts as women, and from there, by the items listed. Almost all of them were toys for very small children, one had a bike on the list, all of them had an obvious theme of what the child loved (Incredible Hulk, Barbie, Lego). Clearly, these families had chosen these gifts for their little ones so they could wake up on Christmas morning and have a holiday to remember, as well as hours of joy and entertainment long after the day was over.

Another store manager came to help out because it was a pretty lengthy process. He looked up at me and said ” You know, every shift I work I donate $5 to Toys for Tots which felt like I was doing something to help, but what you’re doing is really awesome.” That was sweet, but that’s not how I felt at all.  I have always felt that if we do what we can to help, no matter big or small, it makes an enormous difference. I told him about raising $15,000 in 5 days for the Pasadena Humane Society after our dog, Ferris had died. A HUGE portion of those donations came in just by me suggesting people skip their Starbucks for one day because that $5 can make a difference in helping others. Thousands of dollars were raised, $5 at a time because people just wanted to do their part to help. I encouraged the manager to keep doing what he’s doing, because he IS making a difference. He smiled and agreed.

The manager had employees go pull all of the items on the lists I had chosen so he could store all of the merchandise in his office. That way the families could pick them up directly from him, where he could explain why they didn’t have a balance due, and could just take their items home.

The staff was so sweet and helpful and were so awesome about helping me secretly do something kind for a stranger, even if it was outside the norm of store policies. They were just as much a part of doing something kind for these families as I was. I realized after I left that I never actually told the staff my name, which was perfect. My plan to do this anonymously followed through to the end.

I mentioned on Twitter that I did this because I knew there were others out there who would be inspired to find a way to help others. There are so many people in need of everything from food, shelter and clothing to just wanting to give their child a Christmas. I know I can’t help everyone, but after reading this, I hope it inspires others to do something, anything, just to be kind to a stranger.


59 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers

  1. You really are an amazing lady and I really wish there was a way for you to see the joy you just brought to those families.

    I know a lot of workplaces do their own Secret Santa where they buy each other crap that just gets binned, what they should do it take a page out of your book and pool all the money together and head down to a store and help cover the costs of a struggling family this winter.

  2. You are such an amazing lady and I really wish I could see those families’ faces when they are told this news that someone chose to help. Let’s hope this trend spreads!

  3. See, world, money isn’t the root of all evil. It’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil. If I could afford to bless someone like you did, Anne, I would. But at least I can encourage you with my words. And you know what? You might just be inspiring a few of us to do something for others too! Pay it forward….

  4. That is lovely! I work at a tea room and one day two young moms brought their girls in for a tea party. The kids were being a bit rowdy as children having a good time are want to do, and I could tell that the moms felt bad and worried they were bothering the ladies as the next closest table. The ladies must have noticed too because when they came up to pay they asked if they could pay the bill of the party with the children because they were obviously nice, considerate, people who were just trying to do something special for their kids. The bill was $50! I think it is just so awesome when strangers do random nice things for other people!

  5. I really feel inspired! Maybe I will find a store in my town I can do this! My office does angel tree gifts for kids in need ! We all chip in money or buy their wish lists to get them a great Christmas! It is the one thing I love to do each year!

  6. I have to admit that I get pretty hornery around the holidays, for various reasons. But I’ve discovered I can improve my perspective greatly by going to a giving tree and scooping up as many wishes as I can afford to fulfill. It’s what gives meaning to the holiday for me. I’m so in awe of what you’ve done for so many families. Just imagining their surprise when they go in to pick up their gifts…oh my goodness. Well done. And thank you for sharing the warm fuzzies.

  7. Having read this, I realize that something big happened yesterday. Not just on the West Coast, but here in Texas too. My sister, (not by birth but by choice-that’s a whole other beautiful story), teaches 5th grade. She mentioned in a group text that she was having a hard day. A family that she routinely helps in little ways had their electric cut. Hard times had fallen and while she wanted to help, that was beyond her financial ability. We started pelting her with questions about the family. Name and address, whatever info could she get, we would help. Meanwhile, the school counselor was working on this as well because, well, there are seven kids and we are having some seriously cold weather right now. No one was willing to let them suffer. Within minutes she texted us the account number. I googled the electric company and called. I don’t think they were prepared for all the random people they got calling in and I know I got more information about this family than I should have, (shhhh, I’ve conveniently forgotten it, so don’t tell) Once they realized that we were all calling in to help this family out, they got their privacy policy on board and buttoned up tight! That family got their electric back on, and the school got a church group involved to make sure they are taken care of over the holidays as well. I know other donations were made to ensure they have what they need.

    I have waited for this chance to help. To pay it forward. I have taught my boys to give. To donate their time and volunteer when the opportunity is there. What made yesterday so poignant for me though, is that I have been that mom. So yes, warm fuzzies. I am so happy to read of all the warm fuzzies, and have one to share.

  8. You will never know how deeply you have changed those peoples lives. Gifts unbidden and unexpected leave a mark in your heart that never fades.

    One year, right after my husband abandoned us, a neighbor I barely knew gave me a $20 bill for driving him to town. My husband had drained our accounts before leaving and we had always lived on the poverty line. I had told no one he had even left, I was far too proud.

    The neighbor did not, at the time, know; but that $20 kept me from going to a food pantry to beg for milk for my child. It held me over until my next pay check. All he wanted was to do something nice.

    When the world seems really bleak and cold, I remember what a treasure that gift was to me, what a huge difference it made in our lives. I try very hard to pay it forward every chance I get. There are ordinary heroes around every corner and miracles happen all the time. Anyone can be a hero, anyone can ignite a miracle.

    You are a hero, and you made a storm of miracles today.

    1. I’ve been that parent struggling just to give my children basic needs before. I can’t even tell you how many times I didn’t eat just so I could feed my kids when they were little. I’m so grateful to be able to help others and so happy it inspires people to do the same. 🙂

      1. Once, when I was in college and truly a starving student (I put myself through school because my parents simply couldn’t afford it and I refused to borrow money to pay for it because I knew vet school would be 100% done on debt if/when I got there – and it was), I dropped a jug of milk right after checking out in the grocery store. The jug split open and the milk went everywhere.

        I started to cry, because I didn’t have any more money to get more milk.

        Then I realized that I was literally crying over spilled milk and how silly that was, so I started to sort of laugh while still crying. I’m sure I looked like a lunatic, but in truth I was just desperate.

        A stock boy came up and gently put his hand on my shoulder and said that I could get another gallon of milk. I shook my head and said I couldn’t pay for it. He said that was okay- it was no charge.

        I have rarely been so happy and relieved. It was just a stupid gallon of milk, but it was all I had, you know?

        He went and got it for me and though I tried to do it myself, he cleaned up the mess I’d made, too. I was so embarrassed to not have enough, but I just didn’t. And until you’ve been there, you just don’t know how that feels. Sometimes twenty dollars is more than you can ever imagine to another person.

        So thank you, stock boy whose name I never knew, neighbor of the original commenter above, and everyone else who has ever helped someone in need. Your kindnesses are appreciated more than you’ll ever know.

  9. I went & did this too today. The ppl at my Toys R Us weren’t sure what to do, but we figured it out. My son is only 29 months old, but I’m hoping he understands a little bit when I tell him what & why we are doing.

  10. I did this today, too. The staff was kind of taken aback, but very helpful. For those of you who are considering it, here’s a really good idea the manager had: He had one of his staff pull the list of people who had been given a grace period, which, theoretically, would be the list of people who would be having the hardest time settling up.

  11. My family is one of those struggling families. What you have done and inspired others to do is a gift that can’t be measured by any conventional means. Someday I hope I can do the same. Thank you and merry Christmas!

  12. I few years ago I was going through serious financial problems. I had to move to a smaller place in a new neighborhood. My kids were all grown up. We all decided that we would not have the usual Christmas. No gifts, no tree or decorations. We all were going to hang out at my appartment and just be together. A week before Christmas the doorbell rang. I thought they were for the family in the other apartment. I told them they live over there. The three women standing at my door weren’t leaving. One called me by name while the two others opened the trunk of the car. They had a Christmas tree and a stand. They said it was for me. I was stunned. I started to cry. They were smiling at me and hugged me. All I could do was sob out a thank you. They put the tree in the door way and gave me a gift box. They said Merry Christmas and left. I had no idea who they were. My daughter helped carry the tree up the stairs. I told her what just happened. I said look they even gave me a gift. I opened the box and there were two hundred dollar bills inside. Those women gave my family Christmas dinner and gave me such joy and hope. I still have no clue as to who they were or how they found me.

  13. Anne, I really hope I can be as awesome as you when I grow up. You are so caring, kind and encouraging. Thank you so much for all you do for everyone. Most of all, I’m glad you share what you do with us. You are a very wonderful woman. As one of my favorite people says (only to those who deserve it), “You are so good.”

  14. This is a brilliant idea, especially during this time of the year. I’m definitely going to put this on my bucket list.

  15. god, damnit, Anne Wheaton. why… why you gotta give me feels D:

    i can handle cute puppies, silly tweets and vines. i can even handle when you destroy a board game by smacking a table. but i cant handle all these feels D: im going to go cry in a tub of vanilla ice cream now..

    y u gota b awsum?

  16. My mother amazed me today with her kindness.
    I was going into the city for a job interview and my mum was tagging along to shop for Christmas presents.
    While I was in my interview, she was checking out all the window displays of the big department stores in an outdoor mall.
    She came across a young girl (in her early twenties) sitting with her dog and holding up a small sign made of cardboard explaining that her stepfather had kicked her out of home and she was living on the streets with her dog.

    My mother gave her a small amount of change (all she had on her) but she still felt bad for the girl. So, she walked into the nearest fast food restaurant and bought the largest meal they had. She then took the food back to the young girl. After all, money is great, but the girl was probably starving.

    The girl was so touched by the gesture that she started crying, which made my mother cry too.

    All I could do when the story was over was give her a big hug and say “I love you mum!”

    As we walked back passed the girl later, she was sharing the meal with her dog.

    Today I have a new found admiration for my mum. It’s good to know that there are people our there that can care about a complete strangers welfare as much as she does.

  17. My friend’s office did a secret Santa this year but instead of buying useless gifts for each other they bought toys they thought the recipient would have liked as a child then everything was donated to a local toy drive.

  18. I’m so glad to have found you, via Wil, via The Bloggess… you’re all such generous people, and your generosity inspires us all to Pay it Forward. I’m not in a position this year to do anything as wonderful as this, but I do anticipate being one of the benefactors one day (there was a time when I always had a $5 bill in my car to give to a homeless person on a corner, which felt good to do, and may have had an impact, but I want to do more).

    You starting your blog was the “icing on the cake” for me – I’ve started one, too! 🙂

  19. You are an awesome person. Your act of random kindness will bring so much joy to these children! Who says there is no such thing as Santa Claus?! Wishing you and yours a wonderful Christmas!

  20. It gives me hope that in a world so obsessed with reporting the bad and the horrible that good people, like you and your family, exist. Thank you for doing everything you can to make this world a better place. I try to do the same, it’s just a good way to live. Merry Christmas!

  21. We have an organization here in Colorado Springs called Partners In Housing that I’m donating to. They help homeless families get into homes and teach them how to manage money and all sorts of things.

    Thank you for sharing your story! I hope lots of folks get inspired by it to help out where they can.

  22. I can just imagine the confused delight on the faces of those fathers and mothers when they come in to make another payment (perhaps stressing about how to pay other bills AND the layaway) only to be told that it’s already been paid off by a ‘Secret Santa’.

    I hope the management has tissues handy. It’s liable to get rather teary-eyed. Heck, I’m having to blink rapidly just thinking about it. It’s probably dus… No, it’s feels. 100% feels.

    Thank you, Mrs. Anne-Claus, for reminding me about the true spirit of this season.

  23. My husband and I have adopted a family from an abused women’s shelter for the past couple of years. This year, it was a 20 year old girl who was just moving from the shelter to her own apartment, and wanted pots and pans. Giving these gifts has restored my holiday spirit, and makes it easier to ignore the commercialism and wackadoodle mayhem this time of year.

  24. What a great gift for the parents and children. As a mom of 4 year old twins I often finds herself wishing there were less toys to step on in the house. I decided this year to find children who’s wish lists included items that my 4 year old twins were requesting. So, instead of my son getting a huge Thomas the Train set he will get a few cars to go with is existing set and instead of my daughter getting a huge amount of clothes, shoes, and other baby doll items she will be getting a few cute outfits and a case to keep all the stuff in. Lets just hope she starts picking up her baby doll stuff and putting them in the case. The money I didn’t spend on the twins, about half of what I normally would have, I am going to spend on trains and baby doll items for two local children that our local charity requested help for. My twins don’t know the difference in amount of gifts, I cut down on the amount of toys in my house, and two local children will have a joyful Christmas!!

  25. Thank you for the wonderful idea. We were planning to go buy some gift cards and hand them out at random, but the layaway idea was perfect. We went today to Wal-mart and Toys R Us and did the same thing. They were pretty confused at first, but then were really happy to help. The manager at TRU decided to call the recipient first to make sure they had a valid phone number and that the person would actually get it, which was really special to hear – “yes, I’m serious! They’re standing right in front of me!” And she ended up handing over the phone so the woman could thank me herself. Happy tears all around. :’) One of the women at the checkout told me that it had been such a rough day, but it made her feel so good after we offered to do that. The woman on the phone ended up having some discounts applied so it was less than we budgeted, so we ran down to the other register where another guy was picking up his layaway order and we contributed the remainder to him. He looked really stunned, but I told him he could just try and pay it forward sometime. We have some other things planned for our “high karma Chrismas” – we’ve been very fortunate and want to give a few people happy stories to tell.

  26. While shopping for gifts for my niece and nephews I went to the toy aisle and picked up a few things. Then I went and got hats and gloves too. The Salvation Army was at the front of the store collecting items. I dropped all my purchases off at the collection area. My family and are so blessed with so much and if I could help another family to enjoy the holiday just a little bit, well that is my gift to me. Charity for others…

  27. I missed the deadline for the Angel Tree this year. So today, when I got out of work two hours early because it was an extra shift to begin with and we were slow, I dropped off some toys to Toys for Tots. It’s the least I can do.

    You may remember that I recently did a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders. That was a far larger success than I expected (since I don’t have milliwheatons of Twitter followers, my goals are less lofty than some *grin*), and because I saw what people are capable of and due to the death of a friend recently, I’m doing another running fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. These things are not entirely altruistic, as they keep me on the fitness wagon (and they are the only way I’ll stay on it, honestly), but they still make me feel like I’m giving something back, and when a total stranger half a world away donates to my cause just because, it sure does feel good.

    Thanks for another idea on how to give back, Anne, and thanks for helping the world suck less, one layaway at a time. Cheers!

  28. This post reminded me of the days when I was a broke ass single mother. I bought and stashed one toy every month so my daughter could open a bunch of stuff on Christmas.
    Remembering those times, and how different things are now with my son, make me very eager to shop for Toys for Tots.

  29. Strangers are being d***s to you, and you decide to “cancel it out” not by being a d*** (or whatever the female version of that would be) back to them, not by doing something nice for yourself, but by doing something nice for other strangers. You are a wonderful and wise person.

  30. We live on one income with three kids, so just giving our kids a decent Christmas takes a lot of planning and we aren’t able to do a lot for other families this time of year. What we do instead is during the summer time when we are getting school supplies we always buy a second set of supplies and donate them locally for other families who can’t afford them. We feel it’s important to remember that Christmas isn’t the only tine of year people could use a leg up.

  31. I love this! I am often stuck with a want to pay it forward or spread kindness to strangers but struggle with how or what to do. Thank you Anne, and all of you, for sharing these stories.

  32. Someone anonymously paid for my water and energy drink at a gas station the other day. They also paid for the products for about 5 other people. It was a small gesture, but it meant a lot to me. Being able to pay for the toys of a bunch of a little kids is amazing. You’ve helped make Christmas for so many families. You are amazing.

  33. I have enjoyed reading all the responses and everyone’s “pay it forward” kind of attitude. My heart has grown three sizes, though i was hardly a grinch to begin with! Yay!

  34. Oh now here come the waterworks…you are amazing. There are so many amazing people in this world and thank you for what you do…all of you.

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