Imagine receiving $60 in the mail. What would your first thought be? A belated birthday gift, or someone paying you back for a long-forgotten loan?
What if the $60 came with instructions? Give the money away, and touch someone’s life. How you do this is entirely up to you. Where does your mind go? Do you know right away how you would spend the money? Or would you do research or wait for an opportunity to present itself?
Months before my 60th birthday, on the heels of a pandemic and in a time of extreme polarization and harsh realities, my soul yearned for meaning, connection, and generosity of spirit. I wanted this milestone birthday to be a celebration of life, but without the dying part. A renewal of hope. A quiet ceremony that honored growth and revelations while respecting the struggles of others. Something that expressed joy and gratitude in the simple things like a walk at Irvine Park or making my neighbors smile with my outdoor painted rock garden. I wanted it to showcase not just the best of me, but what I believed to be the best of all of us—our desire to lift each other up. I was searching for inspiration.
I read an article about a woman who, for her 70th birthday, sent $70 to 70 people with a request to give the money away. By the end of the day, I had drawn up a list of 60 names and drafted the letter. I already had the stationery and stamps; I just needed to send my husband to the bank for the $60 that would be included with each letter.
I didn’t know what to do expect, but it quickly became apparent that I had touched people.
CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!!! This is the coolest EVER!!!!
I am truly honored to be included, and my mind is racing with ideas.
I am overjoyed at what a great idea this is; my wife is going nuts, too.
I didn’t anticipate the impact this would have on those asked to partic- ipate. Tami was recently reminded how difficult it was in the early years to make ends meet. “There are so many things in life that we just have to do, just have to pay for,” she said. “Especially just to get to work and back.” She drove to All Smog Test Only Center on Chapman Avenue hoping to find someone whose test she could pay for. Roger, the 70-year-old man she selected, kept looking around as though he were on “Candid Camera.” She finally convinced him this was real. “He was so happy! I mean really! He gave me a big, long hug and said how much it really made his day. So there you go! You brought joy to two people—myself and Roger.”
Jen started a conversation with Tim, a homeless man she passed often on her way to work in Minneapolis.
“There was just something about his demeanor and his smile that seemed different than others who seem to be distracted by life or influenced by substances,” she shared. She asked Tim about his story, which he later gave to her in writing. With winter coming, she decided to “put skin in the game” and contribute the balance needed to buy him a much needed parka. Tim was thrilled. “What started with small talk ended in a hug. I will be reminded of you and your generosity every time I pass by him this winter. I wonder if this is more of a gift for me than you,” she wrote.
My birthday wish struck close to home for a friend whose husband had been dealing with cancer. She had been meaning to donate money to Enloe Cancer Center in Chico, where her husband received treatment. She hadn’t gotten around to it, though. She wrote that I inspired her to act. “Our donation, including your $60, is in the mail today, and we are truly joyful about this!”
Steve and Rhonda were asked to participate because from our first meeting, over the sale of my father’s car, there was a connection. They were so excited, they told everyone about my birthday wish, including the manager at Panini Kabob Grill in Santa Ana where they used the $60 to buy dinner for a neighborhood family dealing with cancer and an unexpected loss. Touched by the story, the manager paid for their dessert.
I am reminded of a starfish story, loosely based on Loren C. Eiseley’s essay, “The Star Thrower.” One day a child is walking along a beach. The sun is high, the tide is low, and thousands of starfish are stranded on the sand. The child comes upon a woman gently tossing starfish back into the ocean.
“What are you doing?” the child asks.
“I’m helping to save them,” she replies.
“But there are so many,” the child stammers. “How will you ever make a difference?”
Holding up a starfish she says, “To this one starfish, I made all the difference in the world.”
The starfish story ends with the child helping the woman. Others notice and come to help, and the effort to save them grew from there. When I first heard this story, I thought I was that starfish; I needed someone to find me on the beach and toss me back in the ocean so I could live another day. But I’m not the starfish; I am the woman.
The ripples surprised me. The multitude of ways in which participants made their $60 go further included using personal and company matching funds for charitable donations and fundraisers. People who heard about the birthday wish decided to contribute their own money. Many expressed an interest in their own birthday charity challenge.
One day, a post appeared on my neighborhood Facebook page. “Lauran is celebrating her 60th birthday today (I’m not spilling any secrets, she put it out there for the world to know!). Her birthday wish is to have $60 donated to charity, but I want to go for a higher number. So I’m offering 60 packs of baked goods at $6 per bundle of four. All proceeds will be donated to Power of One Foundation, a nonprofit with a focus on hunger and poverty in Orange County.” Mindy’s $60 paid for half of the ingredients, barely scratching the surface when you think of the time she put into baking and packaging 240 cookies. But because of her efforts and the generosity of my neighbors, she raised $600, with a separate donation made for an additional $120.
Gwen’s project started small. Use $60 to fill six hand-knitted “journey bags” with personal items and take them to a local homeless shelter. Then other knitters in the family got wind of the project. One of them belonged to a knitting group whose members wanted to help. They set a new goal— 60 hand-knitted bags filled with goodies. They’re now considering a new project: journey bags for kids at a San Bernardino family shelter.
A friend of my husband’s, in town for business, treated us to dinner at 1886 Brewery in Orange. He left a $60 tip out of his own pocket so that he could participate, too.
In a way, this feels like the best kind of pyramid scheme—a pyramid of kindness.
After looking at options for his $60, my teenage cousin settled on a cause supporting Afghan refugees. He wrote, “You made me realize how lucky I am to be living this life.”
So, how many lives could you change with $60?