Around this time every year people find a little extra kindness in their hearts, whether it be holding a door open for a stranger, buying their neighbor a beer, or grabbing the tab for the person behind them in the drive through.
One well-known, Fargo-based company has made a name for itself over the past eight years for encouraging their employees to spread kindness throughout the community. And not just encouraging them to go out on their own to pay it forward, but actually enabling them to do so. Bell State Bank created a remarkable tradition when they began the Pay It Forward Program in 2008. Through the program, each employee receives money to distribute to someone in need.
Each January, full-time employees receive $1,000 ($500 for part-timers) to pay forward to “a cause close to their heart,” said Julie Peterson Klein, Executive Vice President and Chief Culture Officer at Bell State Bank. Since the program started, the bank has given away more than $8 million to those in need.
Ultimately, employees spend the year finding needs in the community. Some pay it forward as individuals, while others pool their money with other team members to make a bigger impact with a larger donation. In either situation, the outcome remains the same. “It opens your heart to others,” said Peterson Klein. “[It] proves we can still be good people and make the world a better place.” A better place, that is, regardless of the tragedies that are occurring internationally.
That, my friends, is a reminder we need daily.
Spreading Kindness at Random
Every year at their holiday party, Bell highlights some of the Pay It Forward stories from the year. The videos they share are inspiring. This year, one group donated $18,000 to help Nepal recover from the earthquake it experienced in April. Another group granted the wish of a little boy awaiting a kidney transplant by purchasing front-row tickets to attend a NASCAR race. And yet another individual’s money was used to help a friend who experienced a life-altering skiing accident.
Each of their stories were profound, but still, I yearned for more. I wanted to know about the lives touched that weren’t so obvious… the people who would never admit they needed help and, at a glance, appeared to have everything together.
I got in touch with Kari Bloomquist, a teller supervisor at Bell. Bloomquist chose not to specify ahead of time who she would give the money to. Instead, she found the most fulfillment in paying it forward at random.
“Last year, my friend and I were waiting for something to speak to us,” Bloomquist said. Giving away $1,000, she found, took more thought than one might imagine. But finally, she came up with an idea: to give away grocery store gift cards, $100 at a time.
After Thanksgiving, Bloomquist and a few others walked around the grocery store, handing out gift cards to people they thought would be the most receptive, while trying not to bother those who were clearly in a hurry. They approached people with the most heartfelt intentions, handing them the card and saying, “Wherever you are in life, I hope you can use this or give it to someone who can,” Bloomquist shared. Being a “gift card elf,” as she called it, turned out to be so very powerful.
“Last year one lady told me, ‘This gives me money to buy Christmas presents,’” Bloomquist said. Others would respond, teary-eyed saying, “You don’t know what I’ve been going through,” and “You don’t know what you did by giving me this.” And that’s the truth. We never really know the impact any act of kindness can have.
Surprisingly, there were still others who rejected the gift cards, saying, “I really think there’s someone who needs this more than me.” And that was all a part of the fun… teaching others the lesson that they, too, could pay it forward to someone in need. One recipient shared that while she could use the money, she planned to regift the card to her brother who had just been laid off after his wife had just had a baby.
In paying it forward at random, Bloomquist realized how close this particular yearly tradition was to her heart. Growing up in a single parent household, she knew her mother often struggled with money. “If someone would have come up to me and my mom in the grocery store,” she said, “I would have been in awe.” Even with the wonderful organizations that have been created to help specific causes and people, there will never be a substitute for those silently suffering. Perhaps that is what I, too, find so enthralling about giving at random.
The Impact Far and Wide
Paying it forward refreshes Bloomquist’s perspective on life. It reminds her to “try to be more aware about the spot people are in in their lives.” Just because people are grouchy, doesn’t mean they’re a bad person; they might just be having a bad day, she explained to me. We may never know what others are going through. It also reminds us to be conscious of our own attitudes.
“It puts perspective on how you live your life during the busy times,” Bloomquist said. We are all in a hurry but few stop to ask themselves, am I the one cutting others off while driving, budging in line at the grocery store, or unknowingly scowling at the world passing by?
Sometimes it is something as simple as an act of kindness that will stop us dead in our tracks. Amidst our scurrying, it may give us just a moment to examine our priorities in this chaotic life we live.
Growing in Numbers (Literally)
The Pay It Forward program continues to grow year after year. When I talked to her a couple weeks ago, Peterson Klein hinted that Bell State Bank had something bigger in mind for their 50th anniversary in 2016. At their annual Christmas party last week, the company announced that they would increase the Pay It Forward funds to $1,000 to $2,500 per full-time employee ($1,000 for part-time) for 2016.
“They give us this blessing, and we get to give it on to other people,” Bloomquist said. In the past, she felt that $1,000 was a significant amount to be able to pay forward. She couldn’t fathom the impact she might be able to make with $2,500 in 2016. “Everyone that partakes [in the program] sees it as a benefit they’re given personally… not just a benefit to the community,” Bloomquist said. “It’s exciting to see people excited about such a selfless thing.”
Many lessons have been learned in Bell’s eight years of paying it forward, but one continues to be most prevalent for Bloomquist. “It’s so much more than giving a grocery store gift card,” she said. And that’s the truth; it’s always more. It’s more than a smile, a free cup of coffee, or a cart full of groceries. It’s the idea that, when the world seems to be terrorized by evil, there are still people trying to make it a better place…one act of kindness at a time.
Follow the series:
- Kindness Matters: A History of Paying It Forward
- Kindness Matters: Pinting It Forward Leads To Warm + Fuzzies
Featured image via wobm.com