“Bad teeth run in my family,” she said. “And meth didn’t help.
One act of kindness.
Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Just ask the drive-thru miracle woman.
That would be Valerie LaChapelle, a subject of this column in March.
LaChapelle works the morning shift at the McDonald’s drive-thru window at 1185 S. Vista Ave. Her friendly service has made her something of an institution at McDonald’s. She’s been known to wear clown noses for the kids and buy breakfast for customers who don’t have enough money.
Her “drive-thru miracle,” as she calls it, was an anonymous donation from a customer to pay for dental work she needed. She estimates the cost at $10,000.
The March column attracted a lot of attention and activity on social media. It wasn’t long before customers at the drive-thru began sharing their own miracle stories with her.
“One woman told me she had four kids and was walking everywhere she needed to go with the kids because she didn’t have a car. Somebody saw her walking with the kids every day and felt bad for her so they gave her a car.”
Another customer told her that “his son wanted to play T-ball but they couldn’t afford it. He was explaining to his son that they didn’t have the money, and somebody overheard and gave him the money so his little boy could play.”
At the drive-thru, acts of kindness are happening regularly.
“I bought breakfast today for a guy who’d forgotten his wallet,” LaChapelle said. “The next time he came back, he brought me a card and gave me a $50 gift certificate. I don’t expect that. I don’t expect anyone to even pay me back. That’s not why I do it. When people do pay me back, and they usually do, I just save it for the next person who forgets their wallet.
“ ... Today I had eight cars in a row pay for each other’s meals. It starts with one person. I say that the person in front of you paid for your breakfast, and they say they’ll pay for the person’s behind them. People say they never would have expected that at McDonald’s, but it happens all the time here.”
People who read her story have offered her jobs, including at least one that pays more than she’s making now.
“I’ve been offered jobs at other restaurants and at a hotel for $11 or $12 an hour, but I don’t see any sense in changing. I love my job. I just think I belong at McDonald’s.”
It’s an understatement to say that she’s turned her life around. Addiction to methamphetamines cost her five years in prison. After being released, she lived in a shelter and a halfway house and worked three jobs to pay her fines and restitution.
Meth did a number on her teeth — only eight were left. When she smiled, something she does a lot at the drive-thru, she covered her mouth. That led to the anonymous customer paying for her dental work, which should be finished this fall. Until then, she has temporary dentures that have changed her life.
“I smile more now,” she said. “I’m more confident in myself and I feel like I don’t scare the little kids anymore. I think before they were kind of scared of my mouth. Now I don’t have to cover it up when I smile. I don’t have a problem smiling at anybody anymore.”
Publicity made her something of an attraction:
“People came through just to see me. We couldn’t believe all the people. We had a customer all the way from Washington, D.C., who commented on my drive-thru miracle.
“… A lot of people gave me kudos for changing my life around, for getting out of prison and working three jobs. (She worked at a pizza restaurant and cleaning her church in addition to her job at McDonald’s.) People complimented me for doing the right thing rather than trying to milk the system.”
Lending an ear
Because she included her recovery from addiction in telling me her story in March, readers have approached her about their own addiction problems.
“I’ve gone to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with them. I’ve talked to parents who thought they’d done something wrong with their kids and helped them realize it wasn’t their fault, that doing drugs or alcohol is a choice people make on their own. I took them to Al Anon meetings where they learned that it wasn’t their fault that their kids were addicted and learned to help the kids make better choices.”
I asked her if the generosity of the person who paid for her dental work and the attention resulting from it had changed her.
“I think it’s made me more generous toward people,” she said. “If somebody had handed me that much money, even if they’d said it was for my dental work, I’d have declined. But I think all this has made me realize that everybody has a story. If somebody comes through the drive-thru looking down, I think that maybe their wife or husband is in the hospital or they’re going through something else that’s really hard for them. I think it’s made me nicer to people.”
“And I was nice to begin with.
“ ... My main focus now is just to be kind to people. You never know what one little thing can do.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.