September 15, 2014 | By Sally Deneen
What would you do if you found a $20 bill? Eight-year-old Myles Eckert excitedly picked up a twenty from a snow-covered parking lot at a Cracker Barrel restaurant off I-475 in suburban Toledo, Ohio, and began to daydream about buying a video game. But when he and his family walked inside the eatery and noticed a stranger in military uniform, the boy changed his mind.
Myles scrawled a note. “Dear soldier,” he wrote. “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 never met his dad, Sgt. Gary “Andy” Eckert, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq about six weeks after Myles was born. But the uniformed soldier in the restaurant reminded him of his father, he says. Giving him the money made him feel good.
The soldier, Lt. Col. Frank Dailey of the Ohio Air National Guard, was so moved by the boy’s gesture that he had to stop reading the note to regain his composure.
Afterward, Myles asked his mom to drive him to the cemetery where his dad is buried. It’s a family tradition—going to the gravesite to share experiences with Dad, like building a snowman during the first big snow of the year or kicking a soccer ball in summer. “It sounds weird, but that’s our normal. Whenever they want to go, I take them,” says mom Tiffany Eckert about Myles and sisters Marlee and Berkley. “Myles felt super-compelled after he saw Frank.”
When they got to the cemetery, Myles asked to be alone as he trod through snow to the upright gravestone and gave it a hug.
Later the Dailey family shared what happened in a Facebook post, which they intended for family and friends. But word of the good deed went viral. Pretty quickly, other positive things began to happen.
How did a $20 gift have so much impact? And how has that February lunchtime stop at Cracker Barrel affected the lives of those involved?
“It’s like the Super Bowl of anomalies. You just can’t duplicate this. It grew organically,” says Tiffany, who works in the accounting department at Cooper-Smith Advertising in Toledo.
First came the TV appearances—on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and in a CBS News story. DeGeneres gave Myles the video game he’d thought about buying, as well as a trip to Legoland. The show also treated Dailey and his wife to a six-night vacation in Hawaii.
Meantime, a flood of strangers sought to give Myles video games and cash. Tiffany, who remains a single mom, talked with her kids about what to do with the donations. They decided to redirect do-gooders to give instead to Snowball Express, which provides free vacations for children, including Myles and Marlee, who have lost a military parent in the line of duty. Tiffany says the organization also has provided much-needed support for the family over the past few years.
Other people got into the act. Jeremy Baumhower launched a successful crowdfunding campaign on Crowdtilt, raising more than $10,000. James Dondero was so impressed after seeing the CBS story that his Dallas-based Highland Capital Management issued a $1 million challenge grant for Snowball Express. “We believe every single one of us has a responsibility to help the children of our fallen military heroes,” says Highland president and co-founder Dondero. On her show, DeGeneres held up the first gift toward the challenge grant—a giant check from the website Shutterfly for $20,000. Actor Gary Sinise donated $75,000. By late May, more than $830,000 had flowed in.
“I was kind of blown away,” says Snowball Express executive director Francis “Buck” Kern. “It is definitely the largest grant offering that we have had, and it’s nice that it’s actually a kid who is motivating everybody to do great things and pay it forward.”