MARYSVILLE, Wash.– It’s not often that a retired Boeing couple can get in on hot fads even before celebrities and rock stars make them go viral. But, that’s exactly what happened with the end-of-school-year trend of paying off the lunch debt of school kids.
“We made a New Year’s resolution that we were going to make a difference this year,” retired Boeing employee Tom Lee said Wednesday.
It was around tax time that Tom and his wife, Christy, who also worked for Boeing for more than 30 years, realized they weren’t giving to charities as much as they used to.
“I looked at the stuff we had donated to last year, like Stand Up to Cancer, Meals on Wheels. And boy, this isn’t anything like when we used to when we used to work at Boeing.”
They're a couple of modest means in a modest two-story Marysville home, but they're ramping up giving generously again -- and then some.
This is an important year for Tom. His kidneys are failing, and for four hours every other day he's hooked up to a dialysis machine, which acts an artificial kidney to clean his blood of unwanted waste. In early May, he got the news that his heart is not healthy enough for a transplant.
"That probably pushed me out over the edge, too, to do this now."
For a combined 60 years, the Marysville couple says they used to donate to the Boeing's Employee Community Fund, which matches employee charitable contributions. In 2016 alone, the fund donated $163 million to communities around the world. But for Tom, the seeds of his generosity were planted well before he started in IT at the Boeing plant in Everett.
He credits his grandfather, a preacher.
"That giving," says Tom. "I watched it with my grandfather. Of course, I grew up with my mom, who was a preacher's daughter, but that kind of giving goes back to that side of the family."
Tom and Christy wanted to give back to the school district that helped their now-grown son become the man he is today. So, hearing about school lunch debt, they came down in mid-May to their neighborhood elementary school where their son attended in the 1990s.
They asked to pay the entire lunch debt for the whole school. They were expecting a price tag in the thousands, but it only came down to $259. So, then they asked what it would cost them to erase the lunch debt at all 10 elementary schools in the Marysville School District -- something that district officials said no one has ever done before.
"It was a total of $5,495," said Tom. "I think the [district clerk] was surprised I didn't have a shocked look on my face."
They said they'd think about it, but before Tom and Christy had driven the few blocks home, they had decided they were going to pay to make that lunch debt disappear. Their donation wiped away the lunch debt of 242 students district-wide whose accounts had gone into the negative.
In many districts, when a kid's lunch account reaches zero or dips into negative territory, they're offered cheese sandwiches instead of a hot meal.
Tom says some kids just go without because they're embarrassed to not be eating the same food as everyone else. For the Lees, it was an easy fix for what they say is an awful community problem.
"We did OK in life. We're savers and we worked at Boeing for a long time," said Tom. "So it was time to give back."
"We were even excited for the lunch women," Christy said. "I figured on [the following] Monday, they wouldn't have to turn any children away."
"I can't tell you how good that felt," Tom said.
Now gratitude has come pouring in. Dozens upon dozens of bold and brightly colored 'thank you' notes, some with pictures of lunch trays or dollar bills arrived from the school kids. And so have offers for free places to stay in Hawaii and Alaska, both on Tom's 'Bucket List' for places to visit. And even an offer from someone in Seattle to donate their kidney to Tom.
Tom and Christy turned them all down.
"We sat and talked about this and you know, I feel so good about this and the joy of this," Tom said. "We both agreed it would take away from that joyous feeling."
But something all of us can do for this Marysville couple is pay it forward.
"I really really hope, [this] inspires other people. I really really do."
And this philanthropic duo says they're not done yet. Before graduation for Marysville District's high schools next week -- the Lees want to make sure no senior has their diploma withheld due to outstanding lunch debt.
And what may pay it forward in an even bigger way, Tom and Christy donated money this week to erase the lunch debt at the school of their two grandkids in Arlington, Wash. Following in the footsteps of his own grandfather, Tom explained to the two young boys about the importance of being charitable to others.