It’s true what they say: a single act of kindness can go a long way. It doesn’t take much to put on a smile, ask someone how their day’s going, or lend a hand to those in need. By simply thinking outside of ourselves, we can spark a chain reaction capable of changing countless lives for the better — and even our own in return.
When one fast food employee found himself on hard times, he still managed to make the most of every day, even as many of the people he served with a smile barely acknowledged him. Yet all it took was a small kindness to get one customer’s attention, and the unusual request he made to repay this simple act left the worker in tears.
It’d already been a pretty tough year for Malcolm Coleman. Having suffered the loss of both of his older sisters, Malcolm’s father passed away in 2018, leaving him as the sole means of support and income for his aging mother.
Malcolm Coleman III / Facebook
To make ends meet, Malcolm spent his days — and nights — working at the Wendy’s on the University of South Carolina campus. But even with 15 years in the fast food industry, this line of work never got any easier for Malcolm.
“Working in fast food isn’t easy. It’s grueling. Stressful. Anxiety filled,” Malcolm shared on Facebook. “And a lot of the time you feel like your work ethic is in vain. All of the things that you bring to the table [are] taken for granted. And sometimes you feel completely disregarded as a person.”
Still, Malcolm made it a point to approach each day with positivity, greeting each customer with a smile and an infectious can-do spirit. But in early 2019, Malcolm’s optimism was put to the test like never before.
On January 24 — Malcolm’s birthday, no less — an electrical fire broke out in the small home he shared with his mother. Though the pair was able to escape unscathed, the blaze had rendered the house completely uninhabitable.
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To make matters worse, the insurance on the house had lapsed, leaving Malcolm and his mother unable to pay for repairs. The family of two was forced to begin couch hopping between friends and family until Malcolm could save up.
Michael Mandiberg / Flickr
“It was just crazy and overwhelming, and it still just shakes me up sometimes,” Malcolm recalled of the ordeal to USC’s student newspaper The Daily Gamecock. “It’s kind of opened up old stuff because, you know, I wish my sisters were here to help us cope and deal with this situation.”
But even in the face of adversity, Malcolm was still committed to treating his customers with the same kindness he hoped to receive. And though many patrons simply took their food and left, others, like business student Robert Caldaroni, were touched by Malcolm’s friendliness.
“Walking into Wendy’s, you’ll hear Malcolm just calling people by name in line before they even order and, kind of, talking with them. He has this really strange ability to, if he talks to you twice, he’ll remember your name and your order, which is just really special,” Robert said.
Malcolm Coleman III / Facebook
In fact, over the years Malcolm had become somewhat of a local celebrity amongst those at USC, his larger-than-life personality a welcome pick-me-up for many overstressed students. But as Malcolm’s struggles became known, many began to wonder how he could remain so positive in such difficult circumstances.
The Daily Gamecock
“He’s always smiling and laughing, which is admirable when the tough situation he is in is taken into account,” explained Robert, who didn’t learn of Malcolm’s struggles until February 2020. But this got him thinking: was there anything he could do now to repay Malcolm’s years of kindness?
Malcolm Coleman III / Facebook
On his own, he knew there wasn’t much he could do to change Malcolm’s luck, though after talking it through with members of his business fraternity, Robert had a breakthrough. Together, he and his classmates decided to put out an unusual request to the people of South Carolina.
Through a GoFundMe campaign, Robert and his friends hoped to raise $75,000 to help Malcolm and his mother return home. It was a tall task, for sure, but Robert knew his efforts would be worth it to help someone who’d brought so much joy to so many.
Malcolm Coleman III / Facebook
And sure enough, donations came pouring in as soon as the campaign went live. But Robert knew he couldn’t just keep this good news to himself — it was his turn to make Malcolm’s day.
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Walking into the Wendy’s that afternoon, Robert was greeted on sight by Malcolm, who immediately set to work making his usual order. But when Robert approached the counter, he met Malcolm’s smile with an even bigger one.
He revealed his plan then and there, taking Malcolm completely by surprise and sending tears of joy streaming down the veteran fast food worker’s face. But even in his moment of utter joy, Malcolm still couldn’t stop himself from pouring Robert a chocolate Frosty, just as he’d done countless times before.
Lesa Monster / Flickr
But the good news didn’t stop there, as word of Robert’s campaign soon spread across the country. As of March 24th, the GoFundMe page for Malcolm’s repair bills had collected more than $45,000 in donations!
“After our fundraiser really started to take off this week, Malcolm has been in very high spirits and is still very much in a state of shock,” Robert shared. “To see our community and country come behind him like this has been nothing short of inspirational.”
As for Malcolm, he’s still working the 5-2 shift at the Wendy’s on Greene Street as each day he inches ever closer to returning home. Life’s still no walk in the park, but to know that so many people are rooting for him is what keeps Malcolm going.
Tuan Ton / Flickr
“Thank you all ever so much for loving me for me and for valuing all that I do,” Malcolm wrote on Facebook. “People like you, Rob…the rest of the students at USC, and my other customers (my peeps) remind me that it’s a bigger picture and to keep being me.”
Malcolm Coleman III / Facebook
But while a visit to Malcolm’s Wendy’s could brighten anyone’s day, Jonathon Pengelly experienced only heartbreak when he walked through the doors of his local fast food joint. In search of a lost night with his pals, Jonathon instead found one he’d never forget.
The King / Facebook
On the evening in question, Jonathon and his friends were heading back from a night of barhopping around the port city of Cardiff in Wales. Their hours of drinking had no doubt lightened their pockets, so the group stopped for a cheap bite at a nearby McDonald’s.
To the group’s annoyance, the line inside was longer than expected, yet it wasn’t because of some late-night rush: a woman was attempting to order at the counter, though it appeared that the cashier wouldn’t let her.
Even from where he stood, Jonathon could tell the woman was homeless. He assumed she was looking for a handout or a meal she couldn’t pay for, but as he got in line to order, he realized how wrong he truly was. This woman didn’t want a free meal — she just wanted a cup of water.
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And yet, the cashier had turned her away. The woman left the counter, and for the first time, Jonathon saw how weak and sickly she looked. He knew he couldn’t just let this woman wander back out into the cold without so much as a nibble.
So he approached, wallet in hand, and asked if there was anything he could get her. Part of him expected the woman to squeeze as much goodwill as she could with a huge order, but she was simple in her reply: a cheeseburger. All she wanted was a cheeseburger.
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Taken by the woman’s humility, Jonathon wasn’t satisfied with just buying her a burger and sending her on her way. He asked if there was anything else he could do for her, yet the only other thing she could think of was getting a small bite of food for her friend waiting outside.
So Jonathon did just that, though instead of a small bite, he bought as much food and drink as he could carry and brought it out to them. His friends did the same, and by the time they were done, they’d set an entire McDonald’s feast at the women’s feet.
Jonathon and the others sat with them as they ate, striking up a conversation to learn a little more about the two women. The one that had been turned away by the cashier’s name was Polly, and she had been living on the streets for years.
As they talked, Polly explained that, as a homeless person, kindness had been hard to come by, with people going as far as to mock her and her friend as they passed them by on the streets. Hearing the sadness in the way she said this was enough to bring Jonathon to tears.
jonathonpengelly92 / Instagram
These women were nothing like the way most homeless people were made out to be. “When I got to speak to them, I was genuinely shocked at their story and how educated they were,” Jonathon told The Sun. “So full of life and enthusiasm, and they literally have nothing!”
After they’d finished their meal, Jonathon decided one last act of kindness was in order. He talked it through with his friends, and the group resolved to invite the women back to their home for some much-needed TLC.
Here, Jonathon allowed Polly and her friend to shower and brush their teeth, the first time they’d done so in ages. He also cooked up several days’ worth of meals and packed them up in plastic bags for the women to take with them.
VegetableRex / Imgur
To top it off, Jonathon provided them with clean blankets and pillows to help them keep warm during the cold winter. With their stomachs full, bodies clean, and meals bundled up tight, Polly and her friend bid Jonathon and the others farewell before taking off into the night.
It was clear that Jonathon’s time spent with Polly deeply affected him, and so he took to Facebook to share his experience. While his retelling of that emotional night was a positive one, he also condemned McDonald’s for their treatment of the homeless woman.
Jonathon Pengelly / Facebook
“I don’t know what was going through [the cashier’s] mind,” he wrote, “but a lady, clearly homeless, was asking for a basic human right, and for a multi-billion pound company, for them to say no, is disgusting!”
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Reporters contacted McDonald’s for comment, though the company was quick to dismiss any accusations of discrimination. According to one spokeswoman: “There is no McDonald’s policy to ban homeless people from our stores, and the vast majority of such requests are granted by our restaurant teams.”
The spokeswoman then went on to reveal that there was actually a reason behind the cashier’s refusal of service to Polly. As it turns out, Polly was on a police-sanctioned list of individuals banned from the restaurant.
“Working with the local police, our Cardiff stores have had to ban a number of individuals due to illegal and anti-social behavior, which is why this individual was refused service,” explained the spokeswoman.
Anti-social behavior or not, denying Polly a simple glass of water just goes to show the kind of stigma that surrounds the homeless. Yet these individuals don’t always have to be victims — sometimes, homeless people can wind up playing the hero instead.
Winters in New England are hard for most people. No one likes having to contend with the notoriously brutal conditions — especially not a guy like Elmer Alvarez.
See, Elmer was homeless. The freezing winds and the snow piles that accumulate faster than snowplows can keep sweep ’em away were more dangerous to him than a guy in a heated home, car, and office.
Still, he already had several winters in New Haven under his belt, so he understood the difficulties of the months ahead. Times had been worse for Elmer, despite his current situation.
Drug addiction had led Elmer down a difficult path. Even though he didn’t have a stable place to rest his head each night, he managed to kick his addictions by attending NA meetings. Talk about beating the odds!
Unfortunately, finding a way out of being homeless constantly tormented him; getting yourself off the streets is much easier said than done. But pacing the familiar streets on one chilly November morning, Elmer walked right up to an opportunity…
Right in the center of the path was a bit a paper. Most people walking by wouldn’t give the scrap a second glance, but Elmer stopped and examined the forgotten note.
It wasn’t a discarded receipt or a bit of trash: the paper was a freshly signed check. Air whooshed from his lungs when his eyes landed on the amount written on the line…
The amount of the check was a stunning $10,000. With it endorsed and ready to go, Elmer could’ve transformed his life with that kind of cheddar! No one was around, nothing was stopping him from running to the nearest bank.
But taking the money never crossed Elmer’s mind, not for a second. He turned the check over and, low and behold, a phone number was in fact listed on the back.
Elmer walked the streets until he finally managed to track down a friend with a cellphone. As a Spanish speaker, he had his friend make the call to the check’s addressee.
Stefano Santucci / Flickr
At the same time, in an office a few blocks away, a prominent businesswoman heard her phone ring. Roberta Hoskie, a self-made real estate magnate, was CEO and President of both Outreach Realty Services and Outreach School of Real Estate. She answered the call.
On the other line, Elmer’s friend explained that his friend found her substantial check and wanted to return it to her. Roberta was floored. Had she really lost something so important?
She rifled through her bag, not believing it was possible, only to quickly realize he was right. Shocked that someone was kind enough to reach out, she agreed to meet him immediately.
Once on the street, Roberta opened Facebook Live to document the resolution of the stranger’s good deed. She spotted Elmer and his friend, and couldn’t thank them enough for doing the right thing.
With Elmer too polite to draw attention to himself, his friend let Roberta know her savior was, in fact, homeless. This struck a chord with Roberta on a personal level that made the events all the more meaningful…
See, before she was a high-powered real estate queen, Roberta faced similar obstacles to Elmer’s. At 17 years old, Roberta was pregnant. To care for her child she had to drop out of school.
She’d been a financially difficult place to begin with, but now, with another mouth to feed, she and her child had no choice but to enter housing shelters to avoid living on the streets.
But thanks to a crucial internship at Yale University that catapulted her life out of debilitating poverty, Roberta was able to break out of the cycle — but she never forgot her time in the shelters.
Oncampus.ru / Flickr
It was because of her past that she knew that her run in with Elmer was not a coincidence. She resolved to take the opportunity to pay it forward, in a big way.
Telling Elmer to wait right there, she hurried back to her office to get her checkbook. She wanted to do more for Elmer than just give him some temporary reprieve.
While brainstorming on Facebook live, a suggestion from a follower gave her the idea. Roberta smiled and vowed, “I’m going to teach him how to fish.”
Back on the street, Roberta handed over a check, this one addressed to Elmer, and he burst into grateful tears. The pair hugged, and Roberta shared her own story with him.
Elmer couldn’t believe just how much they had in common. Their newfound connection fresh in their hearts, they parted ways. That’s when Roberta put her plans into motion.
But prejudice reunited them faster than Roberta expected. When Elmer went to cash his check, even with a signature and his ID, shockingly, the bank refused to help him.
They suspected it was fraudulent, just because Elmer wasn’t their typical customer. A quick call to Roberta eased their unwarranted suspicion about the homeless man.
Two weeks later, Roberta arranged a meeting with Elmer. Thanks to her Facebook video, over 13,000 people heard about Elmer’s good deed, and it piqued the interest of the news media.
When Elmer walked in the door, he was greeted with applause by a packed room. He was totally overwhelmed. This wasn’t what he expected when he agreed to meet! Crazier still, things were about to get even more surprising for him…
Roberta Hoskie / Facebook
First, Elmer was presented with a thank you certificate from Ms. Millionaire Mindset, an organization aimed at combating poverty. Next, Roberta laid out her true plan to “teach Elmer to fish.”
Instead of just paying him for his kindness and honesty, Roberta was going to teach him how to set himself up for success. Elmer was going to be given classes at her real estate school, at no cost to him.
Before classes started, Elmer would be taught to improve his English skills. But Roberta had another even bigger surprise. Emotion strained her voice while she explained the best part of her plan.
Roberta told him she’d found him a place to live, an apartment he could share with his girlfriend, with the first 6 months of rent and bills completely covered in full!
Emotions spilled over. Elmer wrapped Roberta in a hug that said everything he couldn’t. Tears streaked his face, and the relief that he wouldn’t face another night on the streets washed over him.
But Roberta thought of everything, even beyond the 6-month gift. After taking the real estate classes, Elmer was set up with a standing job interview at her colleague’s real estate office.
Once he felt prepared, he could tackle the interview. So thrilled with gratitude, he burst out, “I’m ready now!” But granting all Elmer’s dreams wasn’t Roberta’s goal. She wanted to truly pay it forward…
So, a few weeks later, they met up to see how he was progressing with his real estate classes. With her followers watching live, it was Elmer’s turn to deliver some good news.
Waiting to reveal the results of his real estate exam together, Roberta flipped the cover and beamed. Elmer had passed the test! Now just one test remained between him and an endless path of opportunity.
Public interest in Elmer and Roberta’s inspirational friendship continued to grow. In December, Spanish language television station Telemundo invited the duo on a show to share their unique story.
Elmer revealed that the catalyst was the sudden death of his 33-year-old brother. Tortured by grief, Elmer fell into a life addiction and crime. All in all, he served 5 stints in jail, and in turn, lost contact with the rest of his family…
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…Until the host told him to turn around. Standing on the stage were Elmer’s two sisters! Viewers watched live as the family rejoiced in their emotional reunion. Roberta, who had been communicating via a translator, wept!
Right when his heart rate stabilized from the big reveal, there came another jolt. After years of not seeing each other, Elmer’s mother walked out on to the stage. It was all too much for everyone’s tear ducts.
Elmer’s simple choice to do the right thing put a set of wheels into motion. A slew of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities presented themselves to Elmer, and Roberta fulfilled her mission to help end the cycle of poverty.
Roberta Hoskie / Instagram
In a few months’ time, Elmer aced his final real estate exam and Roberta put him on the Board of Directors of her company. Motivated, determined not to squander his gifts, Elmer joined the ranks of the National Association of Realtors.
Friends joined by a bizarre twist of fate, Roberta and Elmer focused their energies on a project — with their non-profit, Outreach Foundation — to help other homeless individuals.
Their goal was to acquire dilapidated properties and flip them into transitional homes that offer services beyond the average shelter for the homeless. It would grant people the same shot Elmer was given.