Paying It Forward: 3 Stories That Inspire

The expression “paying it forward” is used to describe the beneficiary of an act of kindness, who in turn repays that kindness to someone else. One good deed may not seem monumental, but when it inspires spontaneous generosity, it can be socially contagious. Here are three stories that created a cascade of kindness.

1. Paying It Forward With Education

Four decades ago, holocaust survivor Hilde Back decided to participate in an international sponsorship program organized by a group in Sweden. The group was dedicated to helping educate Kenyan children from poor families. She didn’t donate much, just “a drop in the ocean” as she describes it, but it was enough to send a young boy by the name of Chris to school for eight to 10 years. On occasion, she would receive a letter from Chris’s older sister, but as time went on, she lost touch with the family.

In 2002, the Swedish Ambassador in Nairobi contacted Back to inform her that the young boy she had helped wanted to meet her to express his gratitude. Chris Mburu, who had earned degrees from the University of Nairobi and Harvard Law School, was now working as a United Nations Human Rights Adviser. Furthermore, he founded a scholarship program in Back’s name. He invited her to Kenya to see what she had inspired, and they became fast friends. Mburu even calls Back his “second mum.”

These events were documented in an Emmy-nominated 2010 documentary, “A Small Act.” To date, the program named in Back’s honor has awarded more than 570 scholarships to boys and girls in Kenya.

2. Paying It Forward With Organ Donation

Time was running out for Mitzi Neyens of Wausau, Wisconsin. The 77-year-old’s kidney function was rapidly declining, and she was too old to be added to the deceased donor waitlist. However, a family friend — who was willing but not compatible — enrolled in the National Kidney Registry in the off chance that she might be matched with someone else. This practice is referred to as a paired transplant chain.

In a paired transplant, an altruistic donor sets off a chain of transplants in which a recipient’s family or friends give a kidney to another person in need — in other words, paying it forward with a kidney donation. These chains often include many participants, and that was certainly the case for Neyens. On March 26, 2015, she received a new kidney and also made history as the last link in the country’s longest kidney-transplant chain — 34 kidneys were sent between 26 different hospitals and 60 operations.

3. Paying It Forward Slice by Slice

Rosa’s Fresh Pizza owner Mason Wartman received his pay-it-forward inspiration from a customer who asked to pay for a slice of pizza for a person in need. As a makeshift voucher, Wartman stuck a sticky note on the wall. Fast forward three years — sticky notes adorn the walls of the pizzeria, and some are from patrons who gave $1 so that homeless community members could have a slice. Others are messages from recipients, such as, “I just want to thank everyone that donated to Rosa’s; it gave me a place to eat every day and the opportunity to get back on my feet. I start a new job tomorrow!”

According to Wartman, the customer who began the chain of generosity was inspired by a practice that started in Italy, called “suspended coffee.” This occurs when customers purchase a cup of coffee in advance for someone who needs it, no matter the reason.

One good deed may not seem monumental, but it can be socially contagious. So the next time you help a friend or even a stranger, remember that you may actually be helping a lot of other people.