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Published April 02, 2012, 11:30 PM

Matters of the heart: From strangers to friends by chance

FARGO - Rare are the times Sarah Bolton has questioned God’s presence in her life. But such a moment did happen a few months ago. It was late in the year – close to Christmas – and several tragic events had just taken place.

FARGO - Rare are the times Sarah Bolton has questioned God’s presence in her life.

But such a moment did happen a few months ago. It was late in the year – close to Christmas – and several tragic events had just taken place.

First, her daughter’s best friend died unexpectedly from a brain aneurism at 18. Then her dear grandmother became ill and never recovered.

Both lives gone, a proverbial light had been extinguished. Sarah was numb and yearning to feel something – anything – to know that God had not disappeared.

“I said, ‘God, I need you to show me a sign,’ ” Sarah said.

The sign came just a few days after her grandmother’s funeral.

Sarah was at a hair salon in the mall, searching for a product for her teen daughter, when a woman nearby zeroed in on the very same item she’d been eying.

She asked the woman if she knew whether the product worked. The woman said she had tried it before and found it effective and gentle on her “medicated hair,” a result of her body’s absorption of drugs due to a medical condition.

She soon learned the woman’s name, Shawnda Westphal, and her condition, cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that causes an enlargement and fragility of the heart muscle.

Shawnda explained that one of her doctors had recommended a heart transplant, though she wasn’t sure if it would happen or whether she’d be able to afford it. Somehow, she also mentioned that her father had died recently and how much she missed him.

Knowing well the pain of such a loss, Sarah felt an instant bond. Before she could fully process the conversation, it was time for Shawnda’s appointment and she disappeared into the salon.

Something within Sarah stirred her to action, and she began walking over to one of the hair stylists to see if she could pay for the haircut of the woman she’d met just minutes before.

“I was going to do it anonymously but the girls at the store said, ‘No, you’ve got to find her.’ So I bought a $20 gift card and found her and we exchanged numbers,” Sarah said, “and from there we’ve had several other instant connections.”

One thing leads

to another

The intersection of details that unfolded in the coming weeks couldn’t have happened through earthly means alone. “It was so cool how it was all intertwined,” Sarah said. “I just knew God was there and in control.”

First, she invited Shawnda to a presentation by a woman at her church who was adopted. Since Shawnda didn’t have a vehicle, Sarah picked her up to attend the event. The talk resonated deeply with Shawnda, who is also adopted.

The two also discovered they know some of the same people.

Prior to that evening, Sarah questioned whether she should go. Money was tight and the event included a meal that would cost $20 for both. Her fear was resolved when she happened upon $20 in the pocket of a coat that had belonged to her grandma. “My grandma was always stuffing money in her pockets, then losing it,” Sarah said.

In a sense, she said, her grandmother had paid for the meal.

As Shawnda opened up about her life, Sarah learned the story of a single mother twice divorced trying to make it on her own, never-ending medical bills and taxi rides or long walks to and from work and doctor appointments.

Sarah shared bits of Shawnda’s story with friends through email, asking for prayers. It wasn’t long before three checks came in her mailbox, each for $100 for Shawnda.

“One was from a high-school classmate I haven’t seen in years,” Sarah said. “He’d just read the story I’d sent through email, and he’s single, so he decided he wanted to help.”

Pay it forward in action

Joe Gotta was first introduced to Shawnda in February through his daughter, Maria, one of her co-workers at the Hilton Garden Suites.

As an employee of State Bank and Trust, Joe had been on the lookout for a candidate for the company’s Pay It Forward program. Through the program, each employee is allowed $1,000 annually to give to a charity or deserving individual.

“I always have the antennae up for the right opportunity, and Shawnda’s story made it clear there are a lot of needs in our area and community,” he said. “It’s just one story but what a story. To me it was the perfect Pay It Forward opportunity.”

What intrigued him most about Shawnda, based on his daughter’s account, was that despite her hardships she didn’t complain.

“She just seems to have a way about her. She smiles at the challenges in life,” he said. “I was kind of taken aback at how someone could live that way in spite of her circumstances.”

Joe and Sarah soon realized their mutual desire to help Shawnda.

Together, they discovered just how much could be done to help someone in a short amount of time.

Starting out with the goal of gathering around $5,000, enough to pay for a used vehicle for Shawnda, Joe ended up drawing interest from some co-workers, who contributed their Pay It Forward funds to triple the goal.

Joe said Dan Wilson at Corwin Automotive stepped in next, finding a fitting car – a 2001 Chevy Malibu – then digging out some pocket money to ready it for its new owner.

The Hilton supplied a banquet room and food for an event to formally present the car and check with the money that remained to Shawnda.

Shawnda’s perspective

When Shawnda met Sarah in December, she’d been dealing with her heart issues for 11 years and had gotten used to “fending for herself” and her son, Richard, who was 8 at the time of the diagnosis. “I used to let my son eat first because I didn’t know if there’d be enough food for both of us,” she said.

In November, Shawnda was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia. Her weakened heart wasn’t keeping up well. “I was struggling financially, mentally, and I was worried I might lose my job,” she said. “I was at the bottom, just depressed, and I didn’t have anyone – and there she was.”

Shawnda said it was overwhelming to be the recipient of such kindness since nothing like that had ever happened in her decade-plus health struggle.

The experience also lifted her up spiritually. Prior to meeting Sarah, she said, she felt anger toward God for what she’d been through. But she’s begun to feel hope now, and close to God like she had been in her younger years.

Though she’s no longer up for heart-transplant consideration, Shawnda’s medical issues remain. Nevertheless, she said nothing seems insurmountable now that she has a vehicle to get her places and new friends to pray her through any difficulties that might arise.

And while the money has helped, she said, the intangibles involved in the experience have moved her most.

“A couple weeks ago I went to Cashwise to get something and there was a homeless guy standing on the corner of the street. I didn’t have money to give him but I gave him some food,” Shawnda said. “Not that I wouldn’t have done that before, but it’s given me more incentive. He thanked me then just kind of hobbled back over to the little corner to stand with his sign.”

Sarah said she’s learned some lessons of her own in the process – like taking risks.

“If you walk by someone, ask them how their day is, because you never know how that little conversation could turn into something big,” she said. “God is definitely alive in Fargo-Moorhead, and it was so evident with this story. Who would have thought $20 could turn into $15,000?”

Besides that, she’s found a lifelong friend. “I feel like God took my grandma and gave me Shawnda,” Sarah said.

Joe said he’s been humbled by Shawnda’s graceful receptivity. And like the two women, his faith has increased through the experience.

“I’ve just been touched by being part of this special opportunity to love somebody who never expected anything like this – someone who’s a stranger one day and a friend the next. I know she’s going to have some challenges before her but hopefully it will be a little easier now,” he said. “You can really make a difference if you just take your little bit and give it away.”