By Jayne O'Donnell
Starlie Becote told USA TODAY in December that she didn't even have a dollar to buy her five children gifts.
In March, the Rhode Island single mother got a much bigger present from a businessman who read the Dec. 24 article about people facing financial hardship at the holidays.
The man, who asked that his name not be used to preserve his privacy, paid off Becote's college loans, which totaled more than $35,000. In January, he wired her $5,000 to help with her expenses.
Becote earns about $13.65 an hour as a case manager for a community mental health center. With her five children in tow, she ran out of gas on the way to the interview for the December article and had to borrow money to fill her tank..
Holiday stress: Families still dealing with impact of recession
Paying off Becote's loan took far longer than expected because the U.S. Department of Education loan couldn't be paid off with foreign currency. The first check the man wrote was returned because it was drawn on a Canadian bank. Even a U.S. money order was sent back because it was somehow connected to a Canadian bank. Ultimately, he wired the money to a relative in the USA who paid it off, Becote says.
Becote, who couldn't afford to pay any of the unexpectedly high $400 monthly loan payments, was incurring $6 a day in interest.
The Education Department's policy is to reject payments drawn on foreign banks to limit possible unknown currency exchange fees for borrowers, spokesman Chris Greene says.
Children's Friend, a Providence, R.I., social services group, got enough gift donations to make sure Becote's children had a happy holiday. She had no idea such a life-changing event would occur just after Christmas.
Becote hoped to save much of the $5,000 she got for emergencies. One happened almost immediately. Her 2-year-old son, D'Zhaun, was admitted to the hospital with a severe respiratory virus, then contracted pneumonia and the difficult-to-treat infection known as MRSA. Becote missed work for the two weeks he was in intensive care and says she couldn't have paid her rent without the extra money. He has since recovered.
Becote was very likely going to have to default on the student loans, which would have ruined her chances of borrowing money to go to graduate school. A graduate degree is necessary for her to fulfill her dream of becoming a licensed social worker. She plans to apply soon to schools offering master's degrees in social work.
When three readers of the Dec. 24 article left comments questioning some of Becote's life choices, she fired back online. She said she never asked anyone for help and pursued a college degree while raising her children so they wouldn't have to grow up like she did. Becote was in and out of emergency shelters from age 12 and married a man she knew for a month when she was 16.
Becote says it's hard to find the words to describe how shocked and overjoyed she is to have gotten such an unexpected gift from a stranger.
"You don't hear about people that do huge things like for people," Becote says. "I can't believe anything like that ever happened to me in my life."