Hearing Dreams and Struggles Amid the Jackpot

By Chris Earl, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - This all started when I was rewriting a rather mundane story about the Powerball hitting $425 million on Sunday night. Typical TV piece. 25 seconds with an update on what the jackpot was up to.

Part of working in local TV news is doing the obligatory piece whenever the jackpot approaches a certain amount. We all grab a camera and a microphone and shuffle off to the media-friendly gas stations in town to talk to people buying their $2 Powerball tickets amid their candy bars, chips and assorted beverages. I've done at least six of these stories.

Yet the amount of the jackpot - $425 million on Sunday before it shot upwards of $550 million - was so staggering to me. I took a mental inventory of "how much money would it take" to live a life that would be worry-free, at least financially.

Why not have a little fun with this?

At 7:40 p.m. on Sunday night, November 25, I spent a total of twenty seconds writing a Facebook post. I checked it for spelling, declared it solid and sent it up. $30,000 for each person that would be in the page 'likes'.

A dozen 'likes' came in within a minute.

Then a hundred more 'likes' on the post.

500 likes within ten minutes. I glanced over at producer Liz Blood and we both agreed this could get crazy.

I sparred back-and-forth with a profile featuring a Chicago Bears logo, telling her I would pay her $29,988, the $12 taken off the top to signify the twelve world titles the Green Bay Packers have won.

Yet the 'likes' on the post mushroomed. 1,000. 2,000. More comments trickled in, generally from the good viewers and Facebook friends here in Eastern Iowa. For those from around our region, KCRG is the ABC station here covering the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City-Waterloo-Dubuque market. It's a wide expanse of counties, some with cities and most with rolling farmland.

The "likes" on the post were now hitting a point where the comments came in from outside the region. A few stories also hit from commenters saying they really needed the $30,000. Some wondered how I was going to pay all of this out. A valid concern, especially because, as we all know, you can trust everything you encounter on the Internet.

I awoke to about 60,000 "likes" on the post as the "page likes" topped 4,000 (from the steady level of 2,600 on Sunday night). My deal had grown more legs than a millipede and I realized that no longer would my page just be about my posts about the story I was working on or my daily "Best Song I Heard Today" link via YouTube.

This one actually seemed to bring a little bit of hope and some gratitude.

I wrote about what I would do with my cut of the Powerball jackpot but I also asked what these thousands of people would do with the $30,000. I set that amount on Sunday night believe that $30,000 would not be life-changing money but it would definitely be "life-improving".

Let me say that I was taken by the postings that followed on Monday afternoon. Here is a sampling:

Polly: "...I would get my house out of foreclosure, fix it up so my kids have a room, remodel my bathroom for my disabled hubby, and get my family out of debt."

Desiree: "I just want to stop being so stressed all the time...not have to worry about what bill is due on what day."

Amber: "A home for my family so we can stop living with his parents."

Christina: "I would hire a home health nurse for my daughter with heart disease so I can go back to school."

Karen (with a dash of a wry grin): "...I would secretly fund the movie my ex-husband is trying to produce, then I would secretly become a 51% shareholder in it."

Rick: "I would buy KCRG and make you do the news dressed up like a clown."

My wife had a favorite from a poster whose name escape me: "I want to punch you in the face." (I'm in TV. Please, hit me anywhere but the face.) I think she even 'liked' his post.

One of the most striking:

Theresa: "Take my kids to see their brother's grave, get a car with less than 100k miles so the trip would be safe."

We all have our reasons. We all have what's important to us.

As a note, my days off are Mondays and Tuesdays and I spend those afternoons volunteering at my childrens' activities and shuttling them around. Yet I couldn't resist this indescribable feeling that engulfed me that this, really, minimal gesture would make so many people take notice and smile.

The more I thought about it, I kept looking at my phone. So many of us have these phones that are on the cusp of true technology but, aside from Facebook friends, how many people can reach of us really count on in our lives? Perhaps many of these people who posted blessings for me were just surprised to see that there are people who do try and care.

I live a fortunate life. Sure, we struggle like so many others. Whenever my car is sluggish in the morning, I wonder if a fan belt is about to pop. We juggle the cost of the kids' activities against what we want to provide.

Many of these postings also snapped me back to remember the abundance that many of us do enjoy and, probably, take for granted. The hundreds of posters who wrote they were single mothers, struggling month to month just to stay afloat. The ambitious couples trying to put their toddlers on a better financial path or care for aging parents. The seniors who would like to give their grandchildren a little more for when they are gone.

Yet more than a few of the stories also show just how fragile life can be. The husband writing about the wife who was just diagnosed with cancer and now chemo is next. A sick kid where so much of the focus winds up being on the cost as well as the cure.

I wrote about this in one of the Powerball posts on the Facebook page that followed the initial one, how it was my hope this gesture could bring a smile out there, especially for so many who are having a hard time right now. There can be such cynicism and mistrust - which I fully understand - but we do try to find stories of inspiration.

This one simply had a much wider reach than most of my other stories. People from all 50 states and even a few foreign nations chimed in throughout the three days as the original post topped 204,000 'likes' and the page 'likes' exploded from 2,600 to more than 13,000. Sure, some of it was the 'free spin' I was happy to offer but maybe some people didn't mind reading the stories of the others. Through social media, this turned into its own tenuous community of thankful and gracious people.

Once the numbers were drawn last night, I discovered that I would not take the $7 million "before taxes cut" of the Powerball ticket and, instead, I had won $7 for matching three of the six numbers. My son said, "Dad, you're a 'Seven-Dollaraire'."

The seven bucks are still in my pocket but I offer a hearty 'thank you' to all who came along for the ride. If nothing else, maybe seeing this inspired someone - somewhere - to take that extra step and ask about a reclusive neighbor or truly listen when someone is talking about a problem.

Tomorrow is Friday and I will return to my usual job during the weekdays: reporting the news and trying to stay out of the way of the story. Thank you for letting me open up a bit more than is customary to show a human side here. We're all human, after all.
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