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Pay it forward. We have all heard the phrase, but some of us have never experienced the action. For some it’s a cup of coffee, but for others, it’s much more.

For Willow Ahnen, June 21, 2022, started out as any other “normal” day. However, it quickly went south when she looked down at her gas gauge as she was driving to her parent’s house. The brightly lit letter “E” was staring her in the face.

Like many people across the country, Ahnen dreads having to pay for gas, given the rise in fuel prices. According to AAA, the average cost for fuel in Racine County was $4.99 per gallon on June 22.

Just when Ahnen thought things couldn’t get worse, she discovered that she’d forgotten her wallet at home. She was low on money, low on gas, and altogether feeling low about the whole situation. With about 5 miles left until the tank went dry, she had no choice but to stop. Despite not having her credit card, Ahnen pulled into the Mount Pleasant Kwik Trip #134, located at 4924 Spring St. She rummaged through her car and found a total of $2.80. While not enough to even purchase a single gallon of gas, Ahnen made her way inside the store to pay for what she could.

As she handed over pennies and other change to the Kwik Trip employee, Ahnen explained to them that she’d left her card at home. Little did she know that her day was about to change for the better after handing over the little money she had on hand to pay for just over a half-gallon.

After exiting, a woman who was behind Ahnen in the checkout line followed her out of the store. When they got to the gas pump, the stranger offered to pay for Ahnen’s gas.

“When we were out at the pump,” said Ahnen, “I had asked her, ‘Are you sure?’ after she told me to fill the tank. She said, ‘Yes I’m sure.'”

So Ahnen filled her tank. The kind stranger was okay to pay, even with the price of her gas being over $100. She explained to Ahnen, “I’ve been where you are, so I know what it’s like.”

Navigating tough times

As Ahnen stood next to her car as it was being fueled, she called her boyfriend crying. Emotions overwhelmed her because of how touching this stranger’s act of kindness was.

“It’s been becoming increasingly harder to find the good in things recently with all the crazy current events,” she said, but this unexpected act of kindness changed her day for the better.

It meant more to Ahnen than the stranger knew. Times have been tough for many, especially for her family of three. They are dealing with the challenges of employment.

Ahnen and her boyfriend, Devin Smrekar, have been together for over 4 years. Smrekar has been displaced from many jobs throughout the pandemic. The unfortunate thing about being a new hire is when cuts are made, seniority typically wins.

“We have suffered severely from my boyfriend being unemployed because of COVID,” she said. “The rule is always, ‘last one in is the first one out,’ so it’s not always easy to keep from being the last in when you have to keep changing jobs.”

Ahnen has been out of work due to a debilitating medical condition, however, she has been able to keep her job at the Aldi Warehouse in Oak Creek, Wis., in the meantime.

Navigating life has been an uphill battle as of late. On top of trying to get by, her boyfriend has a biological daughter, Emma, whom the couple gets to care for in the summer months.

“Unfortunately we are pretty far behind (in rent) at this point because of it (job insecurities) and have really been struggling to keep up,” but Ahnen is appreciative of various programs that the family has been able to enroll in to help them stay afloat through the pandemic and its challenges.

Blessing in disguise

This story goes beyond the surface. While the stranger did not know of Ahnen’s various problems, this unexpected act of kindness changed her outlook for the better.

When asked what Ahnen would share with the unidentified individual who paid for her gas, she said, “I would want to tell her that she saved me today. She is a wonderful individual, whoever she is, and blessed my family today. Above all, I’d just like her to know just how much it meant to me and to thank her again.”

Ahnen shared her story on Facebook to remind others about the good out there in the world, hoping to connect with the stranger who helped her and instead, got another surprise.

Her Facebook post led another individual to come forward to help. Nicole Lopez decided to hop aboard the “pay it forward” train. Lopez came across the Facebook post and said, “I definitely have some money that I can spare. Almost just splurged on Amazon, but came across this and figured it would be way more beneficial.”

Lopez sent $100 to Ahnen via Facebook messenger saying,” I want to help because I also have been in situations, not financial, but more emotional, where I know that I would feel so good if some random person just reached out a hand for me.”

The next tank of gas is on Lopez.

“Honestly I’m shocked. I’m at a loss for words,” said Ahnen. “I didn’t think it would ever happen, even once!”

Here to help

What started off as a dreadful day turned quickly better due to the thoughtfulness of Racine County’s neighbors. If you are the unidentified stranger who was kind enough to pay for the gas and would like to come forward, please email

Otherwise, if you are an individual who may be struggling to pay bills due to the pandemic, resources are available for you. Read below for information that can assist you throughout these unpredictable times.

resources available in Racine county

Racine County Community Resource Directory

The Racine County Eye has compiled a helpful Community Resource Directory to provide assistance when someone is in need of available resources. This directory contains…

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