Editor’s Note: Mower County, Minnesota, was selected as one of Reader’s Digest’s Nicest Places in America. Meet the winner, find out how the finalists were selected, and hear from our chief judge, Robin Roberts.
Jason Ferch, a social worker from Mower County, Minnesota, dedicated his life to helping folks with severe disabilities. But he wasn’t comfortable in his own home for 14 years after losing the use of his legs in a tragic accident.
Ferch constantly and selflessly put the needs of his neighbors first. He didn’t renovate his own home to accommodate his wheelchair, but he helped others acquire the permits to do similar renovations.
“Jason was their support person for daily living,” said Shannon Ferch, his wife. “He was a magnificent social worker.”
Meanwhile, his knuckles would scrape the doorframe every time he wheeled into the bathroom, and he needed help to shut the door for privacy because he couldn’t do it on his own. Even getting in and out of the shower was a daily struggle.
Enter Pay It Forward, a new charity dedicated to renovating homes for the people who need it most. Ferch’s story eventually caught Gina Grundmeier’s attention. But it wasn’t until her life took a near tragic turn.
In 2010, her house burned down and her family lost everything. “We were uprooted, living in a temporary home,” she told Reader’s Digest. “We are a family of six and so many things were a struggle. There were times when we were scrounging just to buy a gallon of milk.”
But their town didn’t let them go at it alone. Friends and neighbors from all over Mower County chipped in with meals, clothes, and anything else they needed.
While tragic, losing everything brought them closer to a decision that would change everything. Having nothing more to lose, they started a plumbing business. Todd, Gina’s husband, had been a plumber for 20 years, but always worked for someone else. Wanting to make it on their own, they bought a cheap van and some billboard ads.
For the first few months, they weren’t sure how they were going to make it; they borrowed money from friends and maxed out credit cards to get the business off the ground. Fast-forward three years: T ‘N G Plumbing (a combination of their first names), was named best plumber in Mower County.
“We were flabbergasted by getting the award,” Gina said. “I just wanted to find a way to reciprocate and give that back to the community.”
That’s when they started Pay It Forward. They wanted to use their business to say thank you to the town that supported them through everything—and they made sure it would have a lasting impact.
First on their list: Jason Ferch.
After years after putting others before himself, Ferch finally got the help he needed. Grundmeier’s crew completely renovated his home, widening the doorframe, installing a wheel-in shower, and more.
“He would spend hours in the bathroom just because he could now do the things he needed to do on his own and with privacy,” Shannon Ferch, his wife at the time, told Reader’s Digest. “I was just overwhelmed with excitement for him.”
Ferch, who has since passed away, was the first recipient of the Pay It Forward project, but he certainly wasn’t the last.
“Pay It Forward has made Mower County special, one house at a time,” said Becky Josephson, another recipient.
Josephson has a kidney disease that meant traveling long distances for dialysis, or doing it at home, which wasn’t an option with the state of her house.
“My bathroom was a total menace,” she said.
Without her knowledge, her son submitted her application to Pay It Forward.
When chosen, “the first words out of my mouth were, ‘this was better than winning the lottery,’” Josephson said. “The lottery is just money. These are friendships that are made and the love that is put into this and the love that continues afterwards is a life thing.”
Pay It Forward remodeled the bathroom, put in a new water heater and softener, a new carpet in the bedroom, redid the living room, put new flooring in the kitchen and front hall, and put a new door on the house.
As if that wasn’t enough, a miracle happened. Josephson got a kidney and didn’t end up needing dialysis. What folks in Mower County don’t know is that Gina Grundmeier was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her neighbor.
“Gina herself was going to step up to the plate and offer her kidney,” said Josephson.
That may sound like an astounding act of kindness, but it really isn’t for Mower County, whose residents redefine “Minnesota Nice.”
“When you talk about kindness, everybody has a story,” said Josephson of her neighbors. “Being welcoming—that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s second nature for us to be that way.”