Imagine what you might do if someone gave you a thousand dollars and asked you to spend it being kind to total strangers. Now, imagine that someone was Oprah Winfrey! The idea may seem like a feel-good movie plot, similar to the Academy Award winner "Pay It Forward". However, for Jay Buchanan and Allen Arnold, it was a reality that changed their lives forever.
Jay and Allen are friends. They were also members of the studio audience when Oprah announced she was giving everyone there, all 314 of them, a debit card with $1000 on it. She challenged them to "pay it forward" and make a difference in their community by spending the money helping people they didn't know. Exactly how they did it was up to them, but they had to meet the challenge in one week.
After considering a number of options, Jay and Allen decided to take Oprahs's generosity "on the road," touching lives and inspiring others everywhere they went, especially at Mercy Health Center.
"They just walked into the ICU waiting room with big smiles, carrying these huge baskets," said Michele Ashford, Mercy Hospital's Intensive Care Unit Coordinator. "They asked me to pick out any two families that I thought could use an 'uplift' so they could give them these beautiful baskets full of gifts. At first, I didn't know what to think. I see people bring flowers and gifts to family and friends all the time, but this was for people they didn't even know!"
Mercy's Intensive Care Unit is where a specially trained staff cares for the critically ill.
Recovery in ICU often means a lengthy stay, which can be an especially difficult time for family and friends who want to stay close – to be there if there is any change in their loved one's condition. Michele knew of two families who were from out of town. Both had someone dear to them in ICU and had been anxiously waiting and hoping for more than a month.
"A mother was there with one daughter while her other daughter was seriously ill in ICU," said Michele. "Another family had their father in ICU and their mother upstairs in another unit. These people really needed something nice to happen to them."
Michele arranged for Jay and Allen to personally present the baskets which contained a DVD player and an assortment of DVDs. The baskets were also overflowing with blankets, magazines, snacks and many games to help the hours pass a little more pleasantly. There was also a gift certificate to Chili's Restaurant so the family could enjoy a relaxed, private meal away from the hospital.
"It was all so emotional for everyone," said Michele. "The families, the staff, everyone was crying. This was just because these people needed help – perfect strangers. All I could think of was God bless these young men and God bless Oprah!"
Mercy Hospital had not seen the last of Jay and Allen's random acts of kindness. They told Michele they had two more baskets and asked her for a suggestion as to what other unit in the hospital might have the greatest need. Michele made a few phone calls and then directed them to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. There, two mothers were in labor, expecting their babies to be born with complications, which meant long-term care for the babies and extended stays for the parents.
"One of the nurses on NICU chose the mothers who were already both in labor," said Michele. "With the moms' permission, she escorted the guys into their rooms so they could present the baskets in person. The mothers and fathers, as well as the staff, were so grateful and amazed! The birth of a baby is always special, but this certainly was a memory these families would always cherish as part of their children's "birth story."
Mercy Hospital was actually one of four places where Jay and Allen made a difference in the lives of strangers. First, they went into a grocery store in El Reno where they found a very young expectant mother buying food. They paid for her entire basketful of groceries and bought another bag of groceries to give to someone else in need. It didn't take long to find a worthy recipient. While driving down the street, they spied a family of eight, including five young children, cashing in aluminum cans for money. They were from California and spoke very little English. Accepting the food, they expressed their thanks in Spanish, but Jay and Allen understood.
Then, after visiting Mercy Hospital, Oprah's helpers went to Yukon to deliver "tons of toys" to people who would make sure the gifts found their way into the hands of more than 160 children living in foster care.
"Together, we had $2000, and buying the toys is how we spent most of it," said Jay.
It's was so much fun to have a lot of money to shop for toys, knowing they would be going to kids who really would appreciate them. We just filled up our GMC pickup with as much as it would hold and off we went."
Before they took on Oprah's challenge, Jay and Allen already had some idea of the need that existed. Jay is a probation officer for the District Attorney office of Canadian County and Allen is the county's Court Clerk Deputy.
"Together, we see a lot of people going through bad times," said Jay. "But even we had no idea how great the need was before we took Oprah's challenge. It was so difficult to have to choose. There were so many people who needed help and we were swamped with suggestions. The main reason we chose Mercy Hospital is that Allen's grandmother had been a patient there. He had been so impressed with how caring the staff was, not just to his grandmother, but to the family too."
Jay said they told Oprah they had been overwhelmed by the number of people who needed help. She said she understood the weighty responsibility of deciding how to choose in the face of so much need. Oprah’s only advice: "Just do the best you can."