PERU – For the last couple of years, a man has come into Track’s End Restaurant twice a week just to get a glass of water.
General Manger LeeAnn Correll said sometimes her staff would all pitch in to buy a meal for the man, who they suspect might be homeless.
But now, he can come in and get a free meal anytime he wants thanks to a new movement in town called Peru Pay It Forward.
The outreach launched last month at 10 local restaurants and shops, where anyone can come in to pre-purchase a meal or item. Once it’s paid for, the businesses put up a coupon or voucher on the wall, and anyone can come in and claim it – no questions asked.
Correll said that at Track’s End, the response to the outreach has been overwhelming. In just a few weeks, regular customers and random residents have bought hundreds of dollars worth of free meals.
Last week, one person came in and purchased $100 worth of coupons. Not long after, another person came in and paid $50.
In fact, so many people have donated that the restaurant had to put up a second board to hold all the meal vouchers, Correll said.
“I thought it would be a good thing to do, but I didn’t think it would take off like it has,” she said. “It’s just crazy. It’s awesome.”
The movement was spearheaded by Danielle Miller, a bus aide at Maconaquah School Corporation and director of the kids division at Harvesting Capabilities, an organization that serves people with disabilities and seniors. She helped launch the Facebook page dedicated to the cause in order to “be the change you would like to see.”
“I think this will help our businesses and our economy, and it will help others as well,” she said in a video. “Things have been a little dark for a while, and we’re called to be the light in the darkness.”
Conny Woodruff, who runs Conny’s Little German Breadshop, said she’s seen firsthand at her bakery how the Pay It Forward movement has created that light for some residents.
She said a man who walks by her shop nearly every day stopped in recently to take advantage of one of the coupons left there.
“He was very shy about it, but I immediately said, ‘No, no, it’s okay,'” Woodruff said. “I knew he needed the help. He comes in regularly now to the shop.”
Sandra Tossou, owner of Dreams to Reality Cakes, said that’s one of the reasons she likes the outreach so much. People who need the vouchers can discreetly take one without drawing any attention to themselves.
“For a lot people, there’s a pride thing that they don’t want to tell people they need help,” she said. “That’s why we don’t ask any questions. You grab your voucher, you turn it in and you get some product.”
And it’s not just food. Anita Lynn, owner of Anita’s Boutique, said that at her shop, people can come in and prepay for a coat, shirts or gift items that can be redeemed by anyone who needs it.
Lynn said she’s operated her own pay-it-forward program for years, but it’s inspiring to see so many other businesses in Peru rally around the cause.
“It’s fabulous,” she said. “I love how our community comes together as a family like this.”
Tossou said that although it’s the businesses getting the most attention from the movement, the unsung heroes are the hordes of anonymous people who are coming in to actually pay it forward for a random stranger.
“Our small community rallies like crazy around people,” she said. “It’s been a really cool way to pay it forward and keep a little bit of goodness going.”
Miller agreed. She said it’s been amazing to watch how much momentum the outreach has gained in such a short time.
“I’m really humbled by everyone’s kindness and everybody’s willingness to want to do this,” she said.
Woodruff said it’s been heartwarming and life-affirming seeing so many people shell out money for people they don’t even know, but it all comes full circle.
She said one person came in to buy some baked goods and was short $5. He grabbed a voucher to cover the cost. A few days later, he came back and paid $10 forward for someone else to use.
“It’s just snowballed,” Woodruff said. “If we can look out for each or just do something nice for each other, even when we don’t know them, I think that’s pretty neat.”
That’s why joining in the movement was a no-brainer for Tossou. She said after seeing so many people come in during the pandemic to support her business, even when they didn’t have much money to spare, it only makes sense to pay it forward.
“Small businesses are struggling, and we’ve relied on our community to rally around us and spend money when they might not have it,” Tossou said. “We’ve seen that, so why wouldn’t we give back to our community?”
This article is being republished through Hoosier State Press Association.