A Few Dollars

by Caryl Vittorio-Burt
Naperville, Illinois, USA

On my way home from work one day in 1994, I stopped at the grocery store for a few items. I was in a hurry, as usual, but the express lane was very long. I went to another lane and was behind two customers. The woman checking out was a young mother and her little girl. As the clerk was scanning her items, the young lady was carefully counting her food stamps, obviously concerned whether she had enough or not. After the last item was scanned, the clerk told the young mother the total.

The young mother’s expression turned to embarrassment as she realized she did not have enough money and food stamps. She was short around five dollars. She started scanning her items for things to put back, and nervously looking behind her, knowing she was holding up the line. Her purchases consisted of peanut butter, bread, breakfast cereal, oatmeal, milk, and the like. I was smiling and trying to look sympathetic — I had been in situations where I did not have enough money plenty of times myself. Finally, the young mother picked out a bottle of generic grape juice and a jar of generic peanut butter, gave them back to the clerk, and asked for a new total.

At that moment, the woman in front of me asked the clerk to wait a moment. She reached into her purse, took out a $5 bill and handed it to the clerk to pay what the young mother was short. When the clerk tried to give the woman the fifty cents change, she pointed to the little girl and told the clerk to give it to her. The little girl beamed and raced to the gum ball machine to spend her windfall. Naturally, the young mother was grateful and said so. The woman smiled and told her she was welcome.

A Few DollarsI will never forget the look on that little girl’s face — not when shewas given the money for some bubble gum, but when she realized that a perfect stranger cared enough to see to it that she did not have to go without healthy juice and peanut butter that week. The way she looked at the Good Samaritan, you could tell that she learned something valuable that  day: that some people do care.

That woman taught me several things with that one little gesture. There are many opportunities right in front of us to help other people. While there are many myths about people on food stamps, I saw with my own eyes how they feed hungry children. It doesn’t take big, gallant gestures to help people. A few dollars to someone like me was something else entirely to that mother: it was the difference between healthy juice or tap water for her child to drink.

Originally published as HeroicStories #114 on Jan 29, 2000

3 thoughts on “A Few Dollars”

  1. I appreciated the statement in the piece, reminding us that food stamps and other food support programs in the US really do feed hungry children. It’s truly a minuscule part of government spending – why would we begrudge generosity to those who are struggling? Mr. Roosevelt said many years ago, and I think it still rings true today, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

  2. I make it a point to notice the person in front of me in line, in case an opportunity like this presents itself. The phrase to use is, “please put that on my bill, but put it in her cart.”

    You’d be surprised how often you get the chance to help someone, and it’s usually the best money you’ll spend all week.

  3. When I was very young my parents didn’t have a lot of money. They owned their own house and paid the bills, but we didn’t get “extras”. One day an elderly gentleman approached my mom in the grocery store and said that my older brother and were so well-behaved, could he buy us each a kit-kat bar? I do not know who he was but to this day I cannot eat a kit-kat without thinking of him


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