- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Jonnie Wright approached waiting customers at MidAmerican Energy on Tuesday with an envelope stuffed with money.

“I’d like to pay your bill. Would that be OK?”

Most looked dumbfounded or thought it was a joke and laughed. Yeah, right.

Then Wright plunked down the cash.

Wright told the first recipient of his holiday charity that he once didn’t have two bucks to his name and, in fact, had been in this very office negotiating payments to keep his lights on.

Jason Storm is a bartender with three boys and had been trying to catch up, but he owed $372. He was astounded when Wright paid the bill.

But not more than Abdul Marah a few minutes later. When Wright told him he would pay his $285.41 bill, Marah bent over on the counter and wept.

His fiancee had recently had a stroke, was in rehabilitation and the bill had gone unpaid.

“It just lights in me,” said Marah, who like many in line at the East Court Avenue office Tuesday spoke limited English. “This is a great joy. This is the first Christmas I ever got a gift like this.”

Wright, of West Des Moines, recently turned 50, but his plan to spread good will was formed long ago. Ten years ago, he was 320 pounds, depressed and suicidal. He got so low he was stealing shoes from Target to resell on the street because he had no money.

“A lot of people helped me,” Wright told The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/1wkdVgB ). “I’ve got a lot to pay back.”

He asked God to help, and promised he would help others. He went from penniless to a slimmed-down happy man who owns his own small company, a customer-service business called the Buyosphere. He’s not rich, but that doesn’t matter, he told people Tuesday.

“It’s not ours. It’s just passing through our hands,” he told Doug Ashbaugh, who first resisted having his bill paid. “Money is not a good way to keep score. That’s much easier to say when you’ve got it.”

He told Ashbaugh to pay it forward, and the man said he was off to “hit the red kettle,” the Salvation Army’s charity effort.

Last holiday season, Wright championed the pay-it-forward idea by standing on the roadside in homeless garb with a cardboard “Please Help” sign. He handed each donor cash and asked each one to pay it forward. It sparked such a response, including national media attention, that he had T-shirts made with the words “Matter” printed on the front, which he sends to people doing good.

The idea is that every person matters, and that every act of charity builds to others. “We are all wearing a cape over our shoulders with an ‘S’ on our chest, if we pay it forward,” Wright said.

As the line grew Tuesday, he raced from one person to another. A lot of people are struggling, and their bills grow through the winter, said Amy Lovig, who works in customer service. She and her co-workers were lit up on Tuesday morning as they watched his acts of kindness unfold, all the hugs and tears of joy.

They saw a woman who said her service was about to be discontinued cry on Wright’s shoulders after he paid her $411 bill.

“I have five kids,” said Mary Supery. “I don’t forget this.”

They saw Gene Poore of Carlisle tell Wright that his mother had just fallen, broken her hip and had to go to a nursing home, and he needed to pay her $77.70 bill.

“There’s always an angel around,” Poore said.

Wright walked out of the office Tuesday with a light step. He was sure those people with so little would someday give the most in return.

“They know the pain,” he said.

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