Peter Mbonabucha knows how it feels to come up short at the cash register and have someone step in to make up the difference. It’s happened to him.
So when Sam Hammes, 33, of Cedar Rapids, came up $12 short on a day that he’d left his wallet at home and a work friend had already loaned him $100 to get groceries, Mbonabucha chipped in that $12.
“One time I ran out of money and did not have enough to pay for my groceries, and somebody came out and they paid the rest of my (bill),” said Mbonabucha, now 47, of Cedar Rapids. “From that day on I say, I need to do this for somebody else.”
Since becoming a part-time cashier at the Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids in 2017, Mbonabucha has paid it forward for other people, but his kind act on Jan. 8 came with a different kind of payback.
It was 2:30 p.m. and Hammes had an appointment to rush to before hosting some friends that evening. He didn’t have time to go home for his wallet, get to the store, then get back home to fix dinner before they arrived.
He was prepared to deduct enough items from his grocery cart to bring his tally back to $100, when Mbonabucha stepped from behind the counter to use his own debit card to pay the difference.
“It wasn’t a huge amount, but to me, it was the gesture more than anything, that gave me all the feels and warmed my heart,” Hammes said. “I didn’t do anything about it for a week. It was just kinda on my mind. I was going to write him a nice note, and give him 50 bucks or 100 bucks in a letter.”
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But he really wanted to do something bigger, so he set up a GoFundMe campaign titled “The $12 Impact,” hoping to raise $1,000. He also shared the story on his Facebook page. As of Friday, the total had climbed to $5,444. He was going to shut it down Jan. 31, but others have expressed interest in making a donation, so it will remain open for another week or so, Hammes said.
To let Mbonabucha know of his plans, Hammes arranged to surprise him at the store at 9 a.m. Jan. 27 by presenting him with an oversized mock-up check for $3,000. Mbonabucha will receive the real funds after the account is closed.
Mbonabucha definitely was surprised, and didn’t even remember helping Hammes out of a bind a month earlier. And that didn’t surprise Hammes, since he said their previous interaction only took three or four minutes.
“To him, it was just something that he’s done in the past and continues to do if he’s able,” Hammes said. “It me, it was so heartwarming, and I felt the need to do something bigger for him.”
He also knew Mbonabucha had been a refugee from Africa, and “probably has had some hurdles in his life to get here and get where he’s at, so it was even that much better when I found out there couldn’t be a more deserving guy,” Hames said. “I’ve seen other people talk about how he’s always joyful and cheerful, and all the things that I witnessed when I was checking out in his line.”
Mbonabucha fled his homeland of Burundi in 2007, when war broke out. He had been raised and educated there, but knew he would need to further his education in the United States. Two years later, he became a U.S. citizen at age 35, and lived first in Omaha, noting that “things did not go well” for him there.
Seeking promising educational opportunities in Iowa, he came to Cedar Rapids and took general science courses at Kirkwood Community College, then transferred to Mount Mercy University to finish his degree, studying nursing health care administration and health care navigation.
Needing a job, he turned to Hy-Vee, where he’s happy to help his customers.
“I’ve always said we have great customers, and Sam shows that in his gratitude to Peter,” said Kay Kress, store director at the Oakland Road Hy-Vee. “It’s nice to see people still helping people and paying it back tenfold. It just warms my heart.”
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“More than anything, I just wanted people to know the kindness Peter showed to me,” Hammes said. “I felt the need to pay it forward. The best part about it to me was, I didn’t know anything about his background, he didn’t know anything about my background. It was just people helping people. In today’s world, there’s not as much of that going on, and I think it was a nice gesture from him. The lasting impact on me is something I’ll remember forever.”
During the presentation ceremony, Mbonabucha said: “I just did what I thought I was to do here, because Hy-Vee’s mission is to make the customers be happy.”
He doesn’t know yet what he’ll do with this windfall, but he’s already reaped a valuable reward.
“Sam came up and say I touched his heart,” Mbonabucha told The Gazette. “It means a lot. I’m glad that I made a friend.”
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At a glance
• What: The $12 Impact campaign to reward Hy-Vee cashier Peter Mbonabucha of Cedar Rapids for his kindness
• Details: gofundme.com/f/the-12-impact
• Video: See the campaign presentation at facebook.com/102412716518843/videos/897626011006898