— You don’t have to be rich to give enough to change someone else's life. Just ask Barbara Cooke, who found out firsthand that $60 can go a very long way. Cooke decided for her 60th birthday to give $60 to each of her friends, who in turn were asked to "grow" the money and help out a charitable cause. She called it the Give60 Project.
"It was fantastic! For me, a person of faith, it was like observing the spiritual laws of giving play out, as different Give60 projects unfolded," Cooke, of Portland, Ore., told msnbc.com by e-mail.
"The givers often feel like they were receiving much more than they were giving. Many of the people involved have told me how they have shared the story of the project to others and that some of these people are now planning on doing their own version for a birthday, anniversary or other event in their life. How cool is that!"
Twenty-three different organizations benefited from the project, with several being gifted with ongoing, open-ended donations. "And our final total? $23,265, plus! Wow!" Cooke exclaimed.
Cooke was among dozens of msnbc.com readers who wrote in to share their own stories of how extraordinary giving by ordinary individuals can profoundly change lives.
Here are some of the other stories:
Home-cooking for the homeless
Several years back I met this woman. She was having a seizure and although a crowd was around her, only I, a retired paramedic, stopped to assist her. Once she'd gotten back under control we spent the afternoon, with her niece and nephew, walking a river in North Georgia and talking. In the course of conversation she found out I was homeless. For my kindness she quietly rented me a hotel room for a week. She asked for my disposable cell phone number, I thought out of politeness, but I never expected to hear from her again.
A friendship grew in the following months. One day several months later, she was sick and about a hundred miles away and I never hesitated. I pointed my van/home south and went to her. We've not been apart since and she is now my wife. We own a successful painting company outside Atlanta and with hard work we now have a wonderful life.
I have always believed in passing on good luck and finding my wife was a miracle. Now, each year at Christmas I find three or four homeless people in obvious need, usually older people, out-of-luck families when we find them, those obviously not addicted to drugs or alcohol, and I pay to put them each up in hotels for the week of Christmas.
We bring them home-cooked hot meals each night for those six nights, find them new warm clothing, and have on several occasions helped them reconnect with family thought lost forever. Three of these people, two men and a woman, are now back with family, gainfully employed, and off the streets. One has now taken up this same action and helps several homeless people a year in the same way. If we could do this for them all we could change so many lives. We're not rich, but we will always help where we can. God bless and Merry Christmas!
The goal this year was to sew, stuff and ship 35,000 stockings to our men and women in uniform deployed overseas. With the help of our associates, Operation Santa blew past its goal, and sent 41,629 stockings to our troops. Operation Santa has grown into the largest stocking drive in the nation, with volunteers from all 50 states, according to their website.
Every year, two weeks before Thanksgiving, the goal is to stuff at least 35,000 stockings with everyday items we take for granted, like lip balm and dental floss. The stockings are then shipped to all branches of the armed forces serving around the world, combat support hospitals, and K-9 units.
During Christmas in 2005, Operation Santa formed when Marine mom Patricia Smith from Peoria, Ill., set out to provide Christmas for her son and the 40 Marines in his platoon. Composing a list of desired items and money for shipping, she gave the list to everyone she met. Word spread quickly, and others got on board. Smith also thought enough to partner with the Jewish Federation to provide Hanukkah sacks to Jewish soldiers.
To date a grand total of 153,757 stockings and Hanukkah sacks have been shipped to troops serving in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Japan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Djibouti, Kuwait and South Korea. Smith recently resigned and passed the reins of Operation Santa to Sharon McCauley, State Farm systems business analyst and Adopt-a-Soldier coordinator.
An inner-city pledge
The purpose of this letter is to share how Bill Gates and Warren Buffet's Giving Pledge has motivated more than 100 inner-city students who are part of a program in San Diego called Reality Changers. This program began in 2001 with just $300 to its name and the dream of building first-generation college students. Less than 10 years later, the members of Reality Changers have now earned over $10,000,000 in scholarships. These measurable results have prompted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to make two visits to Reality Changers during the past year, where he proclaimed that the program “is a model for the nation.”
Over the past four months, Reality Changers students have read the Giving Pledge letters written by U.S. billionaires and, similarly, the students have now drafted their own letters to describe why they have decided to pledge half of their lifetimes to service. These letters will be unveiled on Jan. 12, with the goal of inspiring other inner-city students (and all other Americans) to pledge half of their lifetimes to service, as well.
The ripple effect of the Giving Pledge participants' generosity has had a tremendous impact on our program. It is hard to imagine that when they wrote their Giving Pledge letters that such action would affect hundreds of inner-city students to become so oriented towards public service, but it most certainly has had a profound impact on our students.
Founder and President, Reality Changers
San Diego, Calif.
A tribute to Daddy
The year was 1960. My Dad had been injured working on the farm, money was very scarce and times were hard for his small family, one 9-year-old daughter (me), my brother, 7, and Mom. We were poor by anyone’s idea. Christmas was near and there was no money for gifts. Our small cedar tree gathered from the woods was decorated with a few small shiny ornaments, popcorn strings and paper ornaments. My Dad, who grew up with no father present and really no stable home, loved Christmas since he did not have a real one much of his life. I remember the day he came home with gifts wrapped and fresh fruit. My Mom told me he had sold his guns to buy us presents. My love for him, which was always strong, became stronger.
Then the day before Christmas he asked me to take a ride with him in our 1955 Ford to a neighbor’s house down the road. When we arrived I saw a small, run-down shack with tar paper siding; inside there were slabs of lumber lying on old cans for seating. Old torn mattresses were lying on the bedroom floor. Heat was a pot belly stove. Several raggedy little boys sat looking anxiously as we entered. There were no cabinets in the kitchen, just shelves on the wall which were very bare. Daddy opened his box he had brought in. Inside were a few small gifts for each boy, and some oranges and apples. The family was thrilled to get this meager offering. Though small, it was a huge gift for them, and a huge amount of money from my Dad.
He told me after we left the home to never forget there was always someone worse off than us, and we could always give something to others no matter how bad things were at our house. This was what Christmas was about.
For the rest of the days my Dad lived, he taught me to give not just at Christmas but all through the year. We were never rich in material goods but we were rich in love at our house. My Dad later became a minister and continued his legacy of giving and celebrating Christmas as Christ’s birth every year until he went to heaven at age 64.
I continue my Dad's legacy trying to give to someone in need every Christmas and all through the year. Thank you, Daddy, for teaching me the Spirit of Christmas.
School of hope
John Wall is a junior at Morehouse College who just this fall helped open the Peachtree Hope Charter School with civil rights leader Lonnie King (no relation to Martin Luther King). Wall’s journey of educational reform started two years ago as a teenager, when he was a judge at an Atlanta elementary/junior high math and debate competition. With only three of the top 40 finalists being African American, Wall posted a lengthy treatise on Facebook — which was eventually seen by thousands, including King. King — who helped lead the student civil rights movement in Atlanta in the '60s — then asked Wall to be on the board of Peachtree Hope.
The youngest on the board by four decades, Wall began (working) to ensure a September opening. Among his efforts: working with the DeKalb City Council to get the school rezoned and canvassing neighborhoods to build enrollment. The reason behind setting up the Peachtree Hope Charter School: The graduation rate for African-American students in Georgia, depending upon the report, ranges from 43 percent to 60 percent. And, 50 years after Lonnie marched with King, there is still a three-year academic achievement gap between white and African-American high school seniors in Georgia.
Allstate has selected Wall as one of four national Give Back Day Heroes as a part of its Beyond February campaign. The company will honor his community service (he is also a volunteer at Atlanta's City of Refuge homeless shelter for children) at the King Center's Salute to Greatness awards banquet in January.
A place to call home
Kathy is a single mother of four whose husband died in an industrial accident. She has struggled since then, both financially and emotionally. She also manages my QSR Sandwich shop — she manages it so well, we rank in the top 10 of 1,640 locations in the U.S. She takes care of my business, and I needed to take care of her.
As our fate would have it, for the first time in my life, I am in a decent financial position. So we bought her a home and she moved in over the past weekend. For the first time in their lives, her children now have place to call "home." Her children and grandchildren now have a place to go for the holidays. Their lives have been forever changed and enhanced.
I cannot describe how this has changed her and her children. Their school grades have picked up — they have goals, they have hope! They have become better employees (yes, two of them work in our restaurant). It's simply an amazing situation. It also has had an amazing effect on me. It's simply the best thing I've done in my life and it has changed me as well. I wish I could have done it sooner in life and I'm looking forward to doing it again.
I am an ordinary person. Born into a poor family, I worked hard and now am able to leverage what little equity I have into a life-changing event for someone else. And it was the coolest thing I have ever done.
Top of the world
I'm on a quest to climb the highest peaks of the seven continents. In the process I'm visiting orphanages in the countries and delivering toys and supplies. It's quite amazing to be surrounded by children that have absolutely nothing and to show them that there are people that do care about them. If it makes a difference to just one child, then it's all worth it.
I've delivered thousands of toys in both Africa and Russia and will be doing the same this April in Nepal prior to my Mount Everest summit attempt. Besides visiting orphanages I've also partnered with the AIDS Research Alliance.
I ask people to visit my website: http://sponsor7summits.com to donate directly to their foundation. I also run an outreach program called Extreme Adventures that offers monthly free outdoor events to help promote confidence, leadership and hope.
Dogs of service
It's been just about 11 years that I was matched with my service dog, Elli, through ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities). I didn't have the $6,500 it cost to pay for her, but that didn't stop ECAD from giving her to me — I needed her and that was enough for them. I think I had raised about $3,500, but there was no way I could come up with the rest of the money by the time my father came home from the hospital.
You see, Elli was trained to respond to a ventilator alarm. Because I have muscular dystrophy, it's hard for me to wake up when I get overtired, and my father was going to need a ventilator to stay alive. He had ALS, and wanted to die at home. Elli saved Dad twice.
With her help, Dad lived long enough to see his youngest daughter marry (even though he couldn't get to the wedding, he got to watch it on video). He also got to spend time at home with his wife, children, and grandchildren.
ECAD gives dogs to veterans who were wounded during active duty. I'm not sure whether they pay $400, or if the dogs are completely free, but they sure do change their lives for the better, according to some of the veterans I've spoken with.
Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Toys for tots
This story is about our daughter Shauna, who began her own toy drive when she was about to turn 9. She is now 27 and just completed her 18th year of collecting toys for children less fortunate. Two weeks before her eighth birthday, Shauna was listening to the radio. The station would read letters people wrote about not having Christmas. One particular story was about a family that had no toys for Christmas. She just could not understand that.
After explaining about how some people struggle she began exclaiming, "I want to help them get toys." I suggested she use her birthday for a party and instead of presents for herself. She jumped all over that idea and had her party and went to the local fire station where she donated six toys. We always thought that would be a one-year thing, but she would never let go, and it grew and grew. By the time she was 17 she had long surpassed 450 toys each year. After 9/11 she made a goal to get 1,100 toys. We thought no way, but after 100 we stopped counting.
Shauna has never had a birthday present since she was 8. She won't take one either. She's an amazing inspiration for so many, young and old alike. This year was very hard as times are so tough and she's expecting her first child the first of the year. She still managed to collect 330 toys, and overwhelmed the fire department as they said their warehouse was completely empty.
Yvonne Winmill, aka Mom