Donald Carter had a long day Friday. His wife and their two children had already had dinner by the time he got home late.
So he jumped in the car to go grab something to eat. It was about 9:30. What happened over the next few hours changed the trajectory of Shajuana Mays’ life.
Carter, a former Kansas City Police Department detective, hadn’t been to the Popeyes at 31st and Prospect in his neighborhood in months. He didn’t feel like driving far, so he went there.
Mays served him at the window. They chit-chatted as his order was prepared. Later he told his Facebook friends what they talked about.
“What do you do besides this?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said, “but I’m about to go back to school.”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “What you gonna go to school for?”
“Nursing,” she said.
“What kind of nurse,” he asked.
“It doesn’t even matter!” she told him.
Carter heard desperation in her voice, like someone running toward a horizon that was too far away.
The conversation didn’t even last a minute. But he thought about the woman in the window at Popeyes on the way home. He was so deep in thought that he ate the chicken in his car, in his driveway. Thoughts rolled around in his head until one landed on his heart.
“What if you just pay for her to go to school.”
His next thought was of the army he could muster: his 1,400 Facebook friends.
He went online to find out how much it would cost someone to become a certified nursing assistant — $1,500.
If he could just get 300 of his Facebook friends to pitch in $5 each ...
That’s what he posted on his Facebook page that night.
“I’d do a Facebook Live broadcast presenting her with the gift if we pulled it off. Just a random act of kindness from a few hundred strangers,” he wrote to his friends.
“Anybody down? Yes, I’m serious.”
The first person who responded asked if he’d started a GoFundMe page.
He hadn’t. He didn’t know how. But he stayed up late that night to create one. He called it “Send a Random Girl 2 Nursing School.”
When he woke up Saturday morning the fund had several hundred dollars in it. By Saturday afternoon he’d met the $1,500 goal, and then some.
The effort caught the attention of several nurses, some of whom who suggested taking the campaign even further.
For $7,000 she could become a licensed practical nurse, an LPN, they told Carter.
“I got scared immediately then,” he admitted. “I don’t even know this girl. I don’t know if she’s even really wanting to do this. I started to freak out.
“I had a choice at that moment to shut it down and stop it, or let people’s kindness pour through this one little portal I created. So I threw caution to the wind. What do I have to lose to let people be extravagantly kind to someone?
“I think that’s what happens sometimes. We let fear quench the things we are naturally inclined to do some of the time. So we lose that spark ... like putting out the wick of a candle. But what if we didn’t do that? What if we were more open to being kind to each other?”
Acts of kindness had been on his mind a lot in recent weeks. A friend whose father died earlier this month had asked her friends to perform kind acts in memory of her father.
And, he just finished binge-watching “The Kindness Diaries” on Netflix, an inspirational travelogue series about author Leon Logothetis’s trip around the world on a vintage yellow motorcycle. Everywhere he went, Logothetis relied on the strangers and good Samaritans to help him along.
Carter went back to Popeyes on Saturday to talk to the manager about setting up a meeting with Mays, whose name he didn’t even know at that point.
The manager found what he was telling her “kind of weird and creepy” until he was able to convince her that his offer was legitimate, Carter said, laughing.
They made a plan for him to return on Sunday and surprise Mays, which he did with a handful of the people who had donated to the cause.
Someone in the group filmed the moment.
Mays, who has been shy to talk about everything that’s happened, was shocked when Carter told her what had happened since they met.
The only words she could manage in the moment were “oh my gosh” before she launched into a litany of thank-yous.
“It isn’t about the money that we raised,” Carter told her. “It’s about a community supporting somebody in our community that wants that wants to do better, wants to step up.”
When Mays managed to find the words, she told Carter and his friends she was “way past excited” about getting “to pursue something that I’ve always wanted to do for very long time, but because I had certain roadblocks in my life ... it pushed it further away from me.”
Coincidentally, Carter is at a crossroads in his life as well. He left the Police Department after 10 years and has new work with a local tech start-up. He’s also working with a community project aimed at connecting people in neighborhoods where they feel disenfranchised from each other.
Like Mays, he was blown away at the response to his efforts over the last few days and is left wondering, who’s next?
“What if we found someone every month and came together as a community and helped them?” he said. “What can we do together to show kindness to somebody or to each other? It just shows how powerful it is when people collectively decide to do something like this.”
As of Monday afternoon, the GoFundMe effort had raised nearly $5,700 of its $7,000 goal for Mays’ nursing education.