By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
“Back in July, my brother Aaron passed away and he worked here when he was 18,” Seth Collins told Nikki Moore, a server at Pizza Hut in Berea on Wednesday.
“In his will,” Seth continued, “the last thing was that he wanted us to leave an awesome tip for a waiter or waitress. Thanks to the response we got from everyone around the world, we’ve had the opportunity to do that 34 times, and today is the 35th. So today, for Aaron, I have a $500 tip for you.”
“Really? Thank you so much,” said Moore in disbelief while covering her face, her hands trembling. “I’m so sorry for your loss. God bless you guys.”
Since the sudden death of his brother in July, just weeks after his 30th birthday, Seth has given $500 tips at 35 locations in eight states. His goal is to visit at least 100 locations in all 50 states within the next year, he said.
In Aaron’s will, created several years before his death, he wrote: “Leave an awesome tip — and I don’t mean 25 percent; I mean $500 on a [freaking] pizza — for a waiter or waitress.”
Aaron also was very specific about not wanting a funeral. So in lieu of flowers, family and friends donated the $500, and then $1,500 more in the days following his death.
“I thought, ‘Great, we can do this a few more times,’” Seth said. “I didn’t know at that point that I would get to keep doing it. It was the response to that first tip that created all the rest.”
On a Tuesday, just three days after Aaron passed, the family went to Puccini’s Smiling Teeth, an Italian restaurant in Lexington. Seth produced a 3-minute video of the first tip, assuming only Aaron’s family and friends would view it.
The video went viral on YouTube.com where it has received more than 2.4 million views. Donations started pouring in as Aaron’s story reached The Today Show, Inside Edition, CBS This Morning, NPR, People Magazine, the Huffington Post and CNN.
Aaron’s story was featured in newspapers and in radio interviews at stations as far away as Australia and Poland, Seth said.
By that Friday, Aaron’s Last Wish at aaroncollins.org had generated more than $50,000 and about $65,000 to date.
“It keeps him alive, I think,” Seth said. “Doing this doesn’t get hard, it’s not doing this that is sometimes hard.”
Seth films and edits videos of every tipping trip, which continue to receive thousands of views online.
“Very little method” goes into choosing a restaurant, and “it’s usually a place everyone will agree to,” Seth said.
He always takes someone with him when he tips — usually friends and family. But, sometimes he takes a stranger he might have met the day before.
Seth withdraws cash from the Aaron’s Last Wish account in $20 bills to give the servers “a nice stack of cash.”
On each bill, he writes “aaroncollins.org.” However, meals and additional tips are paid with diners’ personal funds, he said.
The “pay-it-forward” frenzy sparked by Aaron’s Last Wish has been a “great comfort to the whole family,” Seth said.
Seeing Aaron’s wish carried out all over the country is his focus, he said, which has helped him cope with his grief.
According to Seth, his brother was, perhaps, inspired by an experience he had while dining at a restaurant. Aaron received poor service from a new employee who blundered the drink order and various other things, Seth said.
“The server expressed that she was stressed and considered quitting,” he said. “Aaron gave her a $50 tip and wrote on the check ‘Don’t give up.’”
The server thanked him that day, Seth recalled. “When he saw what a difference that made for her, he started thinking about ways to make peoples’ lives better — people who are sometimes underappreciated.”
“This money will help in a lot of ways,” Nikki Moore said Wednesday at Pizza Hut, where she makes minimum wage.
She and her fiancé care for his mother and grandmother in their home, along with three stepchildren, Kristen, Kaley and, coincidentally, Aaron Michael (“Michael” also is Seth’s middle name).
“The kids have a wonderful mother who helps out a lot,” Moore said, but she was already thinking of a few necessities for which she could use that money.
The coincidences didn’t stop with Aaron’s name.
Moore attended Jackson County High School with Corbin Fee, one of Aaron Collins’ best friends.
The friends had worked at that very Pizza Hut back in 2000, and a relative of Moore’s would have been their manager at the time.
Later that day on Facebook, Moore posted a picture of the cash and a book Aaron’s mom wrote about his life titled “Aaron Collins Did That” (see sidebar).
Moore captioned the photo: “$500 tip from an angel, Aaron Collins.”
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.