Columbia resident adopts pay-it-forward lifestyle

Sunday, October 27, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:47 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 31, 2013
Columbia resident Michele Spry practices the pay-it-forward philosophy with regular acts of kindness such as paying for others' drinks at Starbucks. Her commitment to bringing positivity to others began when her friend Tom Trabue was diagnosed with Stage 3A Hodgkin's lymphoma and she wanted to help.

COLUMBIA — Balancing a huge box of pink and white hydrangeas, Michele Spry presses the button to the entrance of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce with her hip and strolls inside.

She begins handing out the flower arrangements, starting with the front desk. Every face lights up with a smile. "Oh my gosh," the recipients say. Or, "I love hydrangeas!"

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Spry flashes a grin and replies: "Remember to pay it forward."

The flower bouquets for the 15 men and women working at the chamber on this Monday morning are intended to make their day a little brighter and ease the challenge of starting a new work week, Spry explained.

"I'm not shocked she would think of us," said Sedel Marino, who works for the chamber. "She is very thoughtful."

The flowers were left over from a baby shower Spry organized for a friend. Instead of throwing them away, she decided it would be nicer to give them to others to enjoy.

"I want to try to make the world a better place, one community at a time, and create a ripple effect of kindness," she said.

Random generosity

Spry believes in the pay-it-forward philosophy. She hopes her acts of altruism, such as gifting flowers, will create a chain reaction of generosity by motivating people to direct kindness toward others.

When a good friend was diagnosed with late-stage lymphoma, she was devoted to him during his treatment and later helped him manage his hair loss with good humor.

Spry also makes a habit of buying coffee for strangers whenever she stops at Starbucks. Recently, she has engaged Boy Scouts and local schools in spreading the message of pay it forward.

"I don't do it for the recognition," Spry said. "I do it because I want to make someone's day better."

An ancient concept

Paying it forward is a concept as old as the ancient Greeks and adopted by historic notables such as Ben Franklin, who wrote after he loaned money to a friend in 1784:  "When you (...) meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him."

The movie "Pay It Forward," released in 2000, revived the idea. In the movie, a young boy is challenged by his teacher to change the world, and he decides to repay good deeds with favors for others.

In 2011, the Pay It Forward Foundation was established as a global change agent promoting unselfish gestures.  The foundation supports a Pay It Forward Day, set for April 17 next year.

The message of kindness

Columbia has always been home for Spry, 37, where she co-owns Midway Electric Inc. with her husband, Brandon.

Spry was inspired to embark on her most ambitious pay-it-forward venture yet after a close friend in town was diagnosed with cancer.

Doctors told Tom Trabue in May 2012 that he had Stage 3A Hodgkin lymphoma, a treatable form of cancer. 

He had been experiencing health issues for several months, but doctors could not figure out the source. By the time it was discovered, a cancerous mass had spread to his heart and lungs.

Spry kept in close contact during his chemotherapy and also pitched in to lighten his job responsibilities.

"I knew I couldn't fight his cancer for him physically, but I could be that cheerleader, that positive person in his life," she said.

A book for children

Although Spry said she was devastated by the news, she saw it as a chance to teach young children about helping others and the idea of paying it forward.

She wrote a children's book, "Tom T's Hat Rack," that pulls from experiences Trabue had as a cancer patient. The book reflects on hair loss and how it can negatively affect the morale of someone dealing with cancer.

One of the main characters, Tom T, gets a cancer diagnosis that quickly causes him to lose his hair. To cover up his bald head, he begins to wear hats.

A fifth-grade student named Shelby learns that Tom T, a family friend, has been diagnosed with cancer. The hat rack becomes a symbol of paying it forward as Tom T and Shelby construct it together and donate the finished product to a local hospital.

Shelby's gift of the hat rack also shows how anyone is capable of supporting someone else, Spry said.

"I'm really humbled to be a part of her project," Trabue said. "To be the inspiration for that is a legacy that she's allowed me to be a part of."

A few weeks after Trabue's diagnosis, Spry and nearly three dozen others threw him a "hat party." Each person gave him a different hat to wear; Trabue said every hat represented the personality of the person who gifted it to him.

In July, Spry and the Chamber of Commerce ambassadors presented him with a hat rack to celebrate his recovery from cancer.

He has been living cancer-free since December, but he continues to wear the hats.

"The hat kind of became Tom," Spry said. "Wherever you see Tom, you see a hat."

Kids get involved

The book inspired children at West Boulevard Elementary School to organize a hat drive, collecting nearly 300 hats that were donated to Missouri Cancer Associates and Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

Spry is now working with local Boy and Girl Scout troops to build hat racks based on the theme of the book. She said she hopes to eventually take the project across the country with the help of both organizations.

"The next time you walk into a doctor's office and you see a hat rack, you might just have a little smile on your face knowing that there's a story behind it," she said.

Good deeds to pass along

Every time Spry passes through the Starbucks drive-through, she pays for at least one person behind her. Occasionally, the people who benefit from her generosity pay it forward for the next person in line.

After the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Spry bought coffee for the next 26 cars behind her in the drive-through. She said it caused a chain reaction.

On a recent Friday morning, Spry walks up to the counter with a $40 gift card. The smell of coffee beans and pumpkin spice lattes lingers in the air. She hands the card to the barista, instructing her to buy coffee for customers until the balance is depleted. Then she quietly slips out.

One by one, patrons order and at least seven customers learn it costs them nothing. As Spry had hoped, the pool of kindness expands.

"It made my whole week," Ashley Robinson said, "and it makes me want to do it for someone else so they can feel the way I did."

"It makes you want to do the same thing," said Jeremy Hughes, another recipient. He paid for the next person in line.

Other Starbucks patrons in the store that morning took note of Spry's gesture.

"It makes me think that the world is a far cooler and groovier place than I had previously been thinking," Lola Kingsley said.

Michele Spry discussed her acts of kindness in a video for the Missourian's 100 Ages, A Century of Voices project. You can find her video here.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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