Local mystery man gives $10,000 to strangers
On an afternoon a couple of days before Christmas, a woman was walking with a young girl through the Chico Food Maxx parking lot after leaving the grocery store without any bags. A car pulled up beside them, and a woman in the passenger seat lowered her window and said, “We have a gift for you.”
She handed the woman in the parking lot an envelope. The envelope read “Project Sidewalk” and “no strings attached.” Inside was a $50 bill. As the car pulled away, its occupants heard the woman say to the girl, “Now we can buy bread and bologna.” The girl replied, “I told you something good was going to happen today!”
It sounds like a story you’d find in a Chicken Soup for the Soul or hear at Sunday sermon. But in fact, something extraordinary was under way that week, finding its way onto the front page of the Dec. 31 Chico Enterprise-Record, which reported that two Chico residents had received mysterious $50 cash gifts in envelopes labeled “Project Sidewalk.”
The story is this: 208 people were randomly selected for cash gifts that week that totaled $10,000. Yes, that’s right—$10,000. Most of the gifts were $50 bills, but a few were $10. All of the gifts involved a few seconds of interaction between a gift-giver and a recipient that were shrouded in mystery. All of this happened because a Chico man gave the money away that week before Christmas.
The man spoke about his generosity on condition of anonymity. He gave the money away, he said, because it was the right thing to do. He doesn’t want to be identified and doesn’t need to be personally thanked. He wanted the gift-giving to be random, though he indicated he hoped many of the gifts were received by people who needed them.
“A lot of people are struggling right now,” he said in a Dec. 31 interview. “A lot of people need help. I’m able to do it. This was just to say, ‘Somebody cares.’ ”
The donor contacted a friend who has helped him make donations in the past. The friend contacted this reporter, wondering whether it was possible to tell more of the story while protecting her own identity and the man’s anonymity. The friend is a widely known member of the community; let’s call her “Meg,” for the purpose of this story.
Meg organized a team of eight people who gave away the envelopes in a random fashion throughout the city, in neighborhoods, hospitals, shopping centers and downtown. She described the donor as a man who prizes his anonymity because of his own humility and his obvious need for privacy.
“He really believes we have an obligation to give,” Meg said.
She also agreed to help set up an interview with the donor, who spoke with this reporter by telephone but declined to give personal information.
The donor said he was inspired by a news story about random gift-giving in another part of the country.
“This was out of the norm,” he said. “The mystery of it is kind of fun.”
He said he has given away money before, but liked the randomness of this giveaway, the element of “just do it and let it fall where it falls.”
“I wouldn’t go to a nice restaurant and hand out money,” he said. “And maybe somebody got a gift who didn’t need it. Maybe they’ll pass it on to someone else.”
He hadn’t read the E-R story about Dustin Maria, the Butte College student who received a Project Sidewalk gift in the parking lot of Orchard Supply Hardware. Maria told the E-R he used the money to buy a gift for a child who had a card on an “adopt-an-angel” tree.
When the donor heard Maria’s story from this reporter, he seemed pleased. “That’s really neat,” he said. “He [Maria] got a really good feeling for doing what he did. And someone else got a gift they appreciated.”
Meg stressed, though, that this wasn’t meant to be a pay-it-forward program requiring recipients do something kind for someone else. But she said a pay-it-forward attitude might be a by-product, particularly since the recipients can’t thank the giver.
“If you can’t say thank you, maybe you’re going to be a little softer on the kids that day,” she said.
The donor said the habit of giving can be developed according to any capacity to give. “Giving is kind of like going to the gym,” he said. “The more you go the easier it is.”
I asked him if he was afraid of running out of money, and he said no. I asked him if he had obtained his money in a legal fashion, and he said yes. “I’m not growing anything that’s illegal,” he said, and laughed.
By Christmas day, Chico’s mystery man had forgotten about his gift to the town. He remembered the following Monday while on his way to work, and called Meg to see how it went.
She has lots of Chicken Soupish stories full of nameless characters. There was the woman who stood one dark evening in the pouring rain at an Eighth Street bus stop. We’ll call her “Francis.” A car pulled up, and someone said to her, “We have a gift for you.” Francis was handed a Project Sidewalk envelope. But that’s not all.
A second woman approached Francis—independently of the first—and asked whether she needed a ride somewhere. That second woman was given a Project Sidewalk envelope, too. And in a weird moment of serendipity, three Chico women who had been strangers found their lives intersecting.
Meg said she became convinced during the giveaway that random acts of kindness are more common than we think. “It makes you think, ‘Is such random kindness really something we can stumble upon in our daily lives?’ I think this shows we can. My belief is it’s happening all the time.”
She remembers the Chapmantown woman who was in disbelief when she was told they had a gift for her, and the man at a downtown bus stop whom they saw holding his $50 bill up to the light. She remembers the desolation on a dark, rainy night in the hospital emergency room when they gave out three envelopes.
I wondered how I could contact the recipients and get their stories. Then I wondered if the anonymity that makes this story difficult to tell isn’t also its heart. And how do you measure the effect of a $10,000 gift in a city of 100,000 people?
Meg said it was thrilling to be involved in the giveaway. “I feel so lucky and privileged that I was trusted to do this,” she said. “You’re walking up to the person, entering somebody’s space. In the end, it’s not the gift that matters, it’s this moment you share with a stranger, a moment that’s genuine.”