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by John Sheppard, Senior Advisor and Former Trustee,
Southwest Florida Community Foundation

Paying it back and paying it forward are not the same thing. Paying it back is paying back to a helpful lender what has been loaned to you, sometimes with interest, sometimes not. Paying it forward however is making a gift to someone or some cause with no expectation of getting it back. I love the concept of paying it forward. It is a way of spreading the good to others, and passed on forward a gift to the community, to a person and passed on by others passed forward throughout the world.

In 1996 a group of volunteers in California began an organization which they called the “Snowball Express (not to be confused with the movie of the ‘90’s).” Its entire mission is to reach out and help and bring together children who had lost a parent in the War since 9/11, serving those who are left behind, treat and entertain them in some way, and bring the children together each year to share their lives and experiences.

Recently a friend sent to me an online video from a series appearing on CBS in 2014 titled “On the Road.” The program contains human interest stories of people throughout the country. The reporter for CBS, is Steve Hartman.

He covered this story about an 8 year old boy named Myles Eckert. Myles’ father Andy Eckert, a soldier, was killed in Iraq when he was 5 weeks old. The only knowledge Myles has of his Father are stories from his mother, his father’s wedding ring, dog tags, photos and his gravesite.

One day Myles, and his mom Tiffany went to lunch at the Cracker Barrel Restaurant near their home in Maumee, Ohio. As Myles got out of the car, he found on the parking lot floor a $20 bill. Myles first thought was he’d buy a video game with the find. As they were entering the restaurant, Myles noticed a soldier entering the restaurant dressed in his battle fatigues. Once they were seated Myles told his Mother he wanted to give the $20 to the soldier. Sitting at the table for lunch he wrote a note to the soldier on a piece of paper. It said “Dear Soldier, My Dad was a soldier, He’s in heaven now. I found this $20 in the parking lot when we got here. We like to pay it forward in my family. It’s your lucky day. Thank you for your service. Myles Eckert, a gold star kid.”

The soldier he gave it to, Lt. Col. Frank Dailey, is a member of the Air Force National Guard stationed nearby. After he opened the note and gift, he said he couldn’t believe the honor that Myles had bestowed on him. When asked by Hartman what he thought when he opened the note from little Myles, Col. Dailey emotionally replied, “I look at it every day, it is, for me, a new lifetime of direction.”

The CBS video went viral on YouTube and the internet, and people from all over the country wanted to thank, help, and send Myles money to replace his gift. The family, as Myles said, “believed in passing it forward and asked that all funds be sent to Snowball Express, who had helped Myles and his Mom. At the time of the story, more than $250,000 went to Snowball Express in Myles’ honor.

So in this story we have a series of “paying it forward” stories. Myles Dad, Sgt. Andy, paid it forward with his very blood and life, Myles paid his lucky find with a gift to the soldier, Col. Dailey, with a new life focus, and Col. Dailey continues to pay it forward each day. And countless people touched by the story have paid it forward to helping families like Myles’ who have lost their Dad in the wars through Snowball Express.

When I heard this story, I was instantly struck and thought that in a sense this is what the Southwest Florida Community Foundation does as its mission. The Foundation provides different kinds of “fund vehicles” for those who have been blessed, fortunate, successful, or have a cause they want to help. For our fundholders, in a way, they want to pay it forward by helping others now and as their legacy gift to the community. And today there have been many, with assets of $93 million, and more than $63 million granted to nonprofit organizations since 1976, the gifts help others in so many ways and by so many measurements. I encourage you to ask one of the concierges of philanthropy at the Foundation about the many ways you can pay it forward in perpetuity, and watch the story online at


John Sheppard is one of the founders of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976. The Foundation connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $93 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $63 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, it granted more than $3.2 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services, as well as provided regional community impact grants and scholarship grants.

As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation fosters regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties.

John Sheppard