WEST MICHIGAN- — It’s been more than ten years since FOX 17 launched the Pay it Forward effort to recognize and encourage people to help others in the community. During that time, several people have been recognized as our Pay it Forward Person of the Year. FOX 17’s Janice Allen recently caught up with the past winners to see how they’re still making a difference years later.
2014 brought FOX 17's first Person of the Year award, which was given to Nancy Johnson. Johnson is a food services worker at Tri-County Schools, who started a program to fight childhood hunger in the district. She started coordinating and giving out Mac Baskets, which are packed full of healthy snacks to help keep students full when school is out. While the pandemic impacted her efforts with schools shutting down in March, Johnson says she was still keeping busy.
"In a way, I'm still providing the meals, I'm just providing them through the district instead of doing it through the Mac Basket program," said Johnson. "I was able to provide food trucks. So I did eight, I believe, eight food trucks in April and May and those were through the United Way of Ionia and Montcalm County."
Johnson says, despite the added challenges of 2020, she was happy to still be able to make a difference and connect with members of the community. She also says many people openly expressed their appreciation.
"I was in one of the elementary schools and those little kids say 'I saw you were on TV.' They just thought it was amazing that they knew somebody that was on TV, so that was sort of neat to have the kids come up and say something to me."
Rick Ayotte nabbed our award in 2015 for all his various volunteer efforts which focused helping those with special needs. Ayotte did everything from running to help disabled athletes with My Team Triumph, to helping kids 'play ball' with the West Michigan Miracle League.
Because of the pandemic, many of his activities were put on hold due to the risk of others; something Ayotte says he and those families have struggled with.
"That's been the hardest thing for me is I know these families are you know, they're shut in all the time anyway, and this was maybe their only release, said Ayotte. "I know they're struggling and that's hard on my heart, knowing that they're all coping with this the best they can."
As for the extra time on his hands, Ayotte jokes he made a discovery in 2020.
"Oh, well I've discovered this other person living in the house: so I see my wife a lot more," said Ayotte.
He's also looking forward to volunteering once again when it's safe to do so.
Our 2016 winner, Lisa Cober was recognized for helping homeless students at Grand Haven High School by starting the Grand Haven Impact Program, which helps provide basic necessities like toothbrushes, backpacks and even prom dresses to kids.
It's an effort that has continued to grow.
"There's a food pantry now, they have dedicated as whole space for like clothes and all that good stuff," said Cober.
The Impact Program has also expanded to other schools in West Michigan.
"I know that there's been three or four other school districts that reached out shortly after it all aired and they started programs within their schools," Cober told FOX 17.
The mother of three has now moved to Muskegon, but the Impact Program continues on and is now run by the school. Lisa also still finds ways to help the homeless when she can.
"I still make little baggies for the homeless people that I see on the street with waters and doggie treats and snacks and stuff like that so still kind of doing it, but from a little bit afar," said Cober.
When we met our 2017 winner, Marie DeVries, she was 90-years-old and still busy driving and delivering meals to the elderly and home-bound in parts of Ottawa County.
However, after more than 20 years of volunteering with Sunset Retirement Communities & Services' Meals at Home program, Marie finally stepped away.
The now 93-year-old has been filling her time with hobbies like reading and gardening.
"I felt blessed that I was able to do it and I'm still able to drive the car, much to the reluctance of my kids. but so far, so good," said DeVries.
Marie will be celebrating her 94th birthday in April, and still thinks fondly of her time delivering meals.
"I miss those hugs that I would get from those people when they open the door, they were always so glad to see me," said DeVries. "I miss it very much."
Our 2018 winner showed us that when things are tough, you can still help out others.
"We just give them a bunch of stuff to play with and they are so thankful and grateful and that's what we're all about," said Goss.
2019 was the organization's biggest year yet, which made it even tougher when the first delivery of 2020 was cancelled due to Covid.
"We had the bags already and I had to package all the bags back up and everything is back on the shelves," said Goss. "We're focused towards you know, bringing some type of joy and very stressful environment, and so it was very sad that we couldn't do that in March."
While there were setbacks with the deliveries, there has been some positive news with Amanda's health.
"I just had my routine scans and everything came back good, everything is still stable, so that part is really good," said Goss.
2019 brought our youngest person of the year, Sawyer Hendrickson, who was just 10-years-old at the time.
Sawyer has made it her mission to honor and help our troops and veterans, an effort sparked in part after her brother enlisted with the Marines.
Of her efforts, one of her biggest projects is sending stockings to troops for the holidays. Sawyer says in 2020, that endeavor was busier than ever.
"Because of Covid, everything's been canceled. But that doesn't slow down the process of us doing stockings and still sending out care packages," said Hendrickson. "We've had a lot more orders come in; we've had hundreds, thousands more orders come in."
When we spoke to Sawyer, she was at 9,000 stockings at the time and counting.
Sawyer did manage to squeeze in two trips to Washington, D.C. in early 2020, including one to Arlington National Cemetery in March for a special birthday project where she laid yellow roses on gravestones.
Sawyer tells FOX 17 she is looking forward to spending more time with her brother now that he's retired from the Marines, as well as visiting Washington again this year for her 12th birthday.
All of the Person of the Year winners received a $2500 prize, which was largely used by each winner to continue with their charitable efforts.
If you know someone who should be recognized for paying it forward, send FOX 17 a nomination.