Grace: Kentuckian's last wish — for kin to give $500 tip — ripples all the way to Omaha

When Aaron Collins died, his will asked that his family leave a waitress “an awesome tip.” His brother Seth, at left, has been fulfilling that wish. On Saturday he and Ryan Burns left Sara Petersen a $500 tip at the Upstream.


Sara Petersen was not even halfway into her 14-hour double shift at the Upstream when a pair of diners sat in her section on the patio.

The two men were in their 30s. They were fairly low-key. Their order — some beers and a sandwich and the raspberry chicken — was simple.

The 22-year-old gave brisk, good service but otherwise hardly gave it a thought until the men got up to leave.

What happened then made her smile, then cry, then smile again. Later, Sara would tell me she wished she would have said thank you. A few more times.

Because in a long tradition of wait staff, she makes the exact same paltry $2.13 hourly wage I made over 15 years ago. In other words, she lives on tips.

Because even at a high-volume place like the downtown Upstream, where most diners tip about 20 percent, she still takes double shifts to make ends meet.

Because even though her folks, retired postal service workers, were just in for lunch and left their usual extra $20 for her, she felt broke.

She just paid rent, she has to buy college textbooks next week and a coming family vacation would mean she'd be taking a weekend off at one of two jobs she works to pay her way through the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

So when the men got up to leave, you can understand Sara's shock.

“If I could talk to you for just a second,” said the patron with the goatee and faint Southern accent.

“Sure,” a hesitant Sara answered, while his dinner partner captured it on camera.

Then the patron, Seth Collins, smiled at Sara as he told her the quick version of his story, which had gone viral last year and put Seth at Sara's table in Omaha — and made Sara $500 richer.

The story is this:

Seth had a younger brother, Aaron Collins, who died unexpectedly last year in their hometown of Lexington, Ky. Aaron's death on July 7, 2012, shocked everyone who knew him. Some news outlets reported suicide. The Collins family never heard that officially. Seth says the coroner told the family Aaron died by strangulation but there wasn't enough evidence to show whether it was a homicide or suicide.

But neither cause mattered much because Aaron was gone — at age 30.

Aaron fixed computers and worked in construction. He was generous — so generous he once left a $50 tip for a stressed-out first-time waitress, writing “don't give up” on the receipt.

In his will, Aaron gave instructions that any money he had — which was about $70 — should be given to the homeless. Then Aaron Collins requested this: “Leave an awesome tip (and I don't mean 25 percent. I mean $500 on a [expletive] pizza for the waiter or waitress.”)

The Collins family decided to do just that. Once. The family would go out for dinner and leave a sizable tip. But the family didn't have a lot of money. So Seth instructed family and friends who wanted to send flowers to send money instead to a PayPal account, which would go for Aaron's last wish.

Within hours, Seth raised $700. Within a couple of days, it was $1,500. The family figured it would leave three tips. It dined at a pizza joint in Lexington, and Seth filmed the surprise tip and the waitress's reaction as a keepsake for his mother, Tina, and to show donors the good they had done. He put the video on YouTube.

It went viral. Huffington Post picked it up. NPR reported on it. “Good Morning America” called.

And that little PayPal account exploded. Within a month, donors from all over the world had contributed some $50,000.

“That's when I realized I had to start a business to keep that money separate from my personal finances,” said Seth.

He formed the nonprofit Aaron's Wish. And he started going out to eat. A lot. He said he lived off his savings and used the donated funds for weekly $500 tips around Lexington.

The Collins family was thrilled it could keep Aaron's final wish going.

On what would have been Aaron's 31st birthday in June, Seth Collins decided to take the tipping on the road. He raised funds separately to cover expenses such as gas for his 1999 Nissan Altima and food at the restaurants. To fund the trip, he promised donors who gave at least $250 he'd come to their cities.

Which is how Seth Collins came to Omaha on Saturday and why his dining partner at the Upstream was, until now, a stranger.

Ryan Burns is a 30-year-old manager at Industrial Sales Inc., a piping distributor. He heard about Aaron's Wish and Seth's journey online.

“A friend of mine had it on Facebook one day,” Ryan says. “I just kind of read up on it. I thought it was pretty cool.” (Aaron's Last Wish Facebook page)

He also believes in tipping well.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

“It's a tough job,” he said of service work. “A lot of them, it's college kids.”

I reached Seth in Fargo, N.D., on Tuesday. Seth said he'd given away 62 $500 tips, which add up to $31,000. That's just under half the $65,000 that has now been raised. Seth plans to sprinkle $500 tips through the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, hitting each state until he reaches the Pacific Ocean. After that, he points the Nissan southeast and will leave $500 tips through the Southwest and South until he gets to Florida.

Seth says he may take a few days at Christmastime to return to Kentucky and hopes to have the rest of the money given away by next year. He has 42 tips left to give.

Seth said generosity is contagious, and he hopes this tour will inspire others. Some of the servers he's tipped have contacted him to share what they're doing with the money. One gave her roommate $200 for beauty school; one donated to the Humane Society; one said she'd pay for the coffee of someone behind her in line.

“When this started, this was just going to be one time, one person,” Seth said. “When you do something nice for someone, it can have a ripple effect.”

Sara Petersen's long day at the Upstream ended at midnight. It had been busy. She barely took a break.

By the time she got home and counted her tips, she felt lucky. And incredibly grateful.

“I almost feel kind of bad,” she told me on Tuesday. “Like I should have said more to him. I was overwhelmed and shocked. Plus I had a bunch of other tables on the patio. I didn't get to say what I wish I could have said.”

Which was?

“Just how thankful. It couldn't have come at a better time.”

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