How a little spare change can made a difference in people's lives
It may be nothing but pocket change to you.
But at Panara Bread, all that change added up to changing lives.
For a while now employees have asked customers if they would round up their payment to the nearest dollar with the extra change going to "Baking Memories 4 Kids", a non-profit foundation that provides children with life-threatening or terminal illnesses and their families a free vacation to Orlando, Florida.
"They go to Disney World, Sea World, Universal, Legoland, every single park," explained Fran Squeo, the founder of "Baking Memories 4 Kids". We fly them down. They go to the front of the line in every park."
Tuesday morning at the Panera Bread on East Sunshine, the employees and customers got to see the fruits of their labor as the Majorahn family from Ozark walked in with their four children including nine-year-old Dominik, who suffers from an extremely rare brain disorder that has only about 30 known cases worldwide.
"He's on three different tube feedings every hour-and-a-half, constant diaper changes, and we communicate with him in sign language," explained Dominik's mother Jessica. " I would compare him even though he's nine (years-old) to the demands of an infant."
As the family stood next to the area where customers place their orders and made their contributions over the months, the Majorahn parents knew what was about to happen, but the four children that included 11 year-old Victoria, 9 year-old Dominik, 8 year-old Claire and 5 year-old Lukas had no idea what Squeo was about to tell them.
"Your parents told us how brave you guys are and how amazing Dominik is and how you guys help mom all the time," Squeo said as the youngsters stared at him intently. "And we figured we needed to do something very special. You guys are all going to Disney World! Congratulations!"
And with that smiles broke out everywhere with a few tears in the mix as well.
"It warms my heart so much," Jessica said. "This is a trip of a lifetime. This is not something we would be able to do."
As the CEO of Baking Memories for Kids, Squeo travels all around the country making these presentations. He's currently on a trip surprising 15 families with free vacations and he made another stop in Springfield at a Panera Bread on South Campbell to surprise Eloise Fetter of Springfield and Jaxon Rodgers from Oklahoma, who both were diagnosed with Hydranencephaly, a neurological condition brought on by swelling of the brain than can be fatal.
Squeo, who plans on making over 60 trips by the time the year is over, says the experience can be emotionally draining but enjoys every minute of seeing the looks on the families faces when he gives them their free vacations.
"Imagine Christmas morning. It's like that times-a- thousand," he said. "It's clearly the best job on the face of the earth."
And it's personal for Frank because he too is a cancer survivor, diagnosed with stage 3 testicular cancer 11 years ago.
"Sometimes bad things happen for good reasons," he said. "I know I was born to get cancer to start this foundation. There is nobody that could convince me otherwise. So I know for sure that the cancer was a wake-up call for me to say 'Frank this is why I put you here. You're going to lead thousands of people to change the lives of hundreds of children all over the country.'"
Squeo did that by starting his small foundation in 2012 by selling cookies to raise money. Panera Bread then joined up with him, and over the past five years they've raised over a million dollars.
And while the family may have gotten the trip, ("He loves rides. It's the one thing in the world he can do where he's not limited by his disabilities," Jessica said), everyone came away with the blessing that comes from a little spare change.
"Today to actually to see a presentation, it is indescribable," said Panera Bread manager Linda Hammil.
"I'm very excited to just keep pushing forward and be able to share this story with everybody and help get them motivated," added assistant manager Jill Goodman. "We want to get everybody on board and continue to make great surprises."