Anonymous Donor Writes Check for $55,000 After Reading a Reader’s Digest Article

In one of the Nicest Places in America, high school students lead the way in caring for those in their small-town community who need it most.

When Tony Morfin, a sophomore at Molalla High School, interrupted Miss Behrle’s agriculture class by handing her an envelope, what she saw shook her so deeply that her students wondered what was wrong.

“I looked in the envelope and was like ‘oh my gosh,’” MacKenzie Behrle told Reader’s Digest. “The students asked what’s wrong and I said ‘nothing.’”

Behrle and Morfin spirited the envelope to her office and called Clay Sperl, a junior, to come take a look. As the lead coordinator for Share the Love, a three-week whirlwind of raising-money-for-good-causes now in its 20th year, Sperl was used to dealing with bad news and logistical snafus, everything from fundraising events falling through to bad weather putting a damper on others. He braced himself.

What he saw when he looked in the envelope was “unbelievable” and left him, Morfin, and Behrle all “speechless.”

It was a letter wrapped around a check. It read:

“In December 2019, I was at a doctor’s appointment and in the waiting room was a Reader’s Digest. I decided, Hey, I haven’t read one of these since 1975 when my grandma had them on her living room table. I was excited to read about Molalla High School as one of the 50 Nicest Places in America in the November 2019 issue. After reading, I researched Share the Love online and decided to attend the opening assembly.

“Wow, I was so moved not only by the challenging stories of the 2020 recipients but the amazing student body, how well-behaved and polite they conducted themselves…. As I sat in the bleachers watching this assembly unfold, it restored my faith in the young people of today, the power of community and a mighty nice small town called Molalla in our great state of Oregon. Keep up the good, positive work. Doing good for others is what it’s all about!”

share the love anonymous donation 55.,000 Reader's DigestCourtesy Molalla High School

It also read: “Please find enclosed a check for $55,000.”

The letter was unsigned and the check left no clue as to who the anonymous donor was. It stayed a secret between Morfin, Sperl, and Behrle until this year’s campaign was over.

Raising big sums of money for good causes is hard work in Molalla, a rural town of 9,000 people 45 minutes south of Portland. But for 20 years, students at Molalla High have done it with incredible success, each year raising more than the last. It all started with an empty mason jar on the desk of a teacher who was trying to raise money for a family member in need. Two months and $400 later, a movement was born. Now, they need a much larger mason jar.

share the love molalla high schoolCourtesy Mackenzie Behrle
Clay Sperl and Cori Oster

This year, powered by the Reader’s Digest-inspired $55,000 donation, Share the Love raised $147,000, up from $90,000 the year before. In its 20 years, the program has raised about $650,000. The effort got the school named the Nicest Place in Oregon in the annual Reader’s Digest search for the Nicest Places in America.

Share the Love is a 501(c)(3) organization run almost entirely by students—this year, led by Sperl, 35 helped manage the effort, along with two teachers. Beneficiaries of the nonprofit’s efforts come from a pool of nominations and are chosen based on their level of need and community involvement. This year, the money will be split between the families of Felipe Us-Zapata, Lynne Blatter, and Mike Campbell.

Us-Zapata, a father of six and his family’s sole breadwinner, is battling brain cancer and now requires around-the-clock care. Blatter, a local teacher and volunteer, has to get regular dialysis to treat diabetes-related renal failure in addition to paying off past hospital bills. Campbell, a local teacher and sports coach, was diagnosed with metastatic stage IV lung cancer in 2018 and had to give up his jobs to attend to his health.

The recipients were announced in a moving ceremony at Molalla High in early February.

Student Body President Natalee Litchfield and Vice President Emilie Mendoza molalla high school share the loveCourtesy Mackenzie Behrle
Student Body President Natalee Litchfield and Vice President Emilie Mendoza at the Share The Love event

“It was a really powerful assembly,” said Sperl. “One hundred percent, there were tears, especially from those close to the families.”

What followed was three furious weeks of fundraising, including a cardboard boat race, a 5k run, and, new for this year, a tattoo-a-thon, where local artists donated their time and talents and ended up raising $3,000 for Share the Love.

For the families who benefit, it’s about more than the much-needed money.

“With the amount of love you get during the process and after, you’re so supported,” Faith Marr told Reader’s Digest. A 2012 recipient, she was three-years-old when she was diagnosed with a form of cancer never seen in a child’s spine, where she suffered from it. Without the $13,000 Share the Love raised for her family, a potentially life-saving experimental treatment would have been out of reach.

“I tell people all the time: if I did not get that money to go to Boston, I don’t think I would have lived,” she said. “We never thought we would be nominated. We still don’t know who nominated us.”

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Share the Love also changes the lives of the students who run it. Sperl, who ran this year’s program as coordinator and will do so again next year, wants to be a nurse practitioner. “I live to serve people and I want to make a difference in people’s lives. Being part of this awesome organization, I knew I could make a difference and it makes me full inside.”

Marr, now 17 and still working to overcome pain and complications for the experimental treatment that saved her life, wants to be a pediatrician. “I have to go into the medical field,” she said. “I want to advocate for people in explaining their pain because that is the really hard part going through life like this.”

As for Behrle, the teacher at Molalla who helps the students bring it all together, it brings her pride as a teacher to see her students running such a complex and successful organization. Some of the students who were coordinators before Sperl have gone on to careers in the nonprofit world. And, to think, it all started with an empty mason jar.

“We started small! You don’t have to start off raising $147k in three weeks,” she said. “Start small and it grows from there.”