Small Gift, Big Impact: How A Little Cash Changed Our Readers' Lives

Sep 17, 2017
Originally published on September 18, 2017 1:42 pm

We asked, and you answered.

In a recent series we explored a different way of giving aid to people in poor countries. Instead of handing out seeds or a cow or job training, what if you just gave people cash and let them decide how to use it?

Then we put the call out to you, our audience: Was there ever a time when you got a little cash with no strings attached and it made a huge difference? Or when you wished for a tiny windfall to tackle a problem?

Thanks to the 198 readers who shared their stories. Here is a sampling, lightly edited for length and clarity.

How Will I Pay That Childbirth Bill?

Twenty-eight years ago I was pregnant and thought my health insurance covered pregnancy. I had a healthy daughter but learned my husband and I had to pay the $3,000 hospital bill.

We didn't have the money and were already struggling to pay college debt and start a business. We were making payments but the hospital was harassing us for more. Then my grandfather died and left each grandchild $2,500.

That money drained the stress away. Twenty years later I received a $50,000 inheritance from my in-laws and didn't even really need it. We took a fantastic vacation and did some other things, but it didn't have the impact of paying the hospital bill.

I do not yet have grandchildren but they will be remembered in my will in the hope that a little money will go a long way for them.

-- Cindy Palmer

In Need Of Carpenter Tools — And Gas Money

I became an apprentice carpenter and did not have enough money to buy the required hand tools or pay for two weeks' worth of gas and lunches for my first job.

I was given $150 no-strings-attached, no repayment required, from a nonprofit geared toward helping women get into non-traditional trades. As I progressed in the four-year program, I gave tools to new apprentices and helped with their lunches.

Without the initial seed money, I would have struggled. I felt there were people pulling for me to be as successful as possible. I've been able to work as a construction carpenter for 15 years.

-- Esther Rodriguez

Where In The World Will $5,000 Take Me?

My freshman year of college I won a grant for $5,000 a year, paid over the remaining three years of school. There was only one string attached: It couldn't be spent on tuition. But we could do anything else with the money (within reason).

The idea was to give resources to the top students of the university, students who embodied the ideals of a liberal arts education. We could take the grant and pursue anything we wanted. They clearly knew that we were all broke college students and that getting $15,000 to chase our dreams would make a drastic difference.

I used the money one year to visit India and learn about grant writing for global health. The next year I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, for intensive Russian lessons. And the final year I used it to finance moving to Kyrgyzstan.

I wouldn't have been able to travel without the grant, and I wouldn't have been able to move to another country after graduation and have money to live off of before I got a job as a translator.

Even more, being a grant recipient and being told that my ideas were worth investing in gave me confidence to pursue them and do new and sometimes crazy things. This grant was one of the most influential parts of my college education, and without it, I wouldn't be where I am today.

-- Corby Johnson

An Oil Change, Snow Tires, A Birthday Gift

I make a decent living, but it barely covers the basics in my expensive Colorado community. My friends and sister help me here and there, often saying, "treat yourself to something nice."

So far the nice things have been: groceries, an oil change, snow tires, a birthday gift for my son and a table that fits in our tiny dining room. I agree that the best part of that is the dignity of providing for my family's needs. I long for the day when I can start doing the same for someone else.

-- Sarah Enochson

Food Stamps Were Not Enough

As a student raising three kids, every penny counted. Although I worked while attending college, it was never enough for "extras" like tires for the car, clothes for the kids, or items not covered by food stamps (like toilet paper, laundry detergent or deodorant).

Having a bit of extra money would have meant I could have gotten through college much faster and not had to rely upon school loans (and not currently be in over my head in school loan debt).

-- Mary Hall

Help From The Office 'Fairies'

Last summer my family struggled. My work dries up with the academic calendar, so I have no income in the summer. My daughter gets free lunches and breakfasts at elementary school, but during the summer those stop, too. We were barely making it, but then our 20-year-old refrigerator stopped working, and my husband was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure.

For many days we ate rice and canned soup and made do with powdered milk. I struggled to pay for parking to visit my husband in the ICU. I felt ashamed to face my child and explain how I was not a superhero who could just make things happen.

My boss sent me an email out of the blue asking how I was. Normally I would hide the shame of my failure, but that day I wrote her back and explained what was happening and how alone I felt.

My boss and a group of her faculty and staff co-workers at the university passed the hat and brought me $400. I had money to park at the ICU. I could do my laundry. My boss even paid for my daughter's school supplies for the coming school year. It was a miracle. I was not alone. If Dr. Molly, Erin, Dr. Christina, and the rest of "the fairies" are out there listening, thank you.

-- Roxie Brookshire

Applying To Medical School Costs A Lot

I didn't have the money needed to pay the fees required to apply to medical school. It was 1981 and it had taken me eight years to finally complete the requirements to apply.

During the time I was trying to submit applications, I received a letter with a $100 bill inside. There was no name; no instructions on how to spend it. Few people even knew I was applying to medical school.

I was the youngest of five and the first to attend college and I did so against my father's wishes. He couldn't understand why I would go homeless and hungry to pay money for "a piece of paper." He thought my role in life was to be a wife and mother, and he was not going to squander precious resources for the luxury of a college education. I also didn't want to lose face should I apply and not be accepted.

Thankfully, I was accepted and I graduated from University of Connecticut Medical School in 1986. I have been a practicing physician since 1990 and finished paying back my loans from medical school in 1997. My son is now a second-year medical student at UConn. In addition, getting my medical degree motivated two of my older siblings to go to college, and their children are in college today. My father and I made peace with each other.

-- Merrilee Leonhardt

Paying It Forward

I had a rich great-uncle. Well, not rich — but when he died, the money he did have, he split evenly between all his grandnieces and -nephews. One of my siblings invested it and left it alone. The investment has helped him buy his dream house. I, on the other hand, used it to pay off charge card bills and go on vacation with my family.

The money also allowed me to do something I had always wanted to do: I got a $500 money order and gave it anonymously to an individual who I knew had lived in poverty his whole life. I thought this money could change this person's Christmas. It did. He was like a child — so giddy and excited that somebody did this for him. He ended up using the money to purchase a used truck — his transportation for at least 10 years.

I didn't lift him out of poverty. But knowing he had transportation to and from work and anywhere else for that long gave me a good feeling inside. It was always my secret.

-- Jo Justis

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