Random Acts of Happiness 

Grannies give anonymously to people in need.


Throughout the winter of 2008, Angelique Williams and her brother, Johnny, helped their elderly mother pay her utilities.

Then, out of nowhere, they started receiving notices from Memphis Light, Gas, and Water that the bills had been paid. This happened during the three coldest months of winter and the three hottest months of summer, when usage tended to be most expensive at the elder Williams' South Memphis home.

"We thought it was a joke," Angelique said.

So she went to MLGW to determine what was going on. Sure enough: Someone had paid her mother's bills. Who that someone was — and why they did so — remained to be seen. The only clue was a handwritten note on the utility receipts that said, "Happiness Happens."

"Then we started getting the sweetest little notes from Nana Pearl and Nana Mary Jane," Angelique said.

The "Nanas" didn't volunteer their identities, but they did give the Williamses a post office box in Germantown for any future requests they might have.

Angelique said she didn't want to impose on their generosity whoever they might be. She and Johnny were just grateful for the help. How the Nanas even heard of their mother's situation is something the Williams family probably will never know.

"It's like angels," Angelique said. "They show up, give you what you need, and then poof!"

And that's exactly the way Happiness Happens members prefer it, said Nana Helen Bowman, the group's new ambassador. She was hired just last week to serve as the public face for the nonprofit organization, whose members' identities are closely guarded. Where (or if) they're headquartered is anyone's guess, and that secretiveness even extends to Bowman.

"They want to be anonymous," she said. "I don't know who they are."

But she does know enough about them to feel a kinship with their mission. Happiness Happens members range from ages 50 to 70 and operate primarily in the Memphis area. All nine of them are grandmothers, four of whom are sisters.

The sisters, in particular, have a soft spot for abused or battered women, which is why they're planning to donate bedding and other items this week to a local YWCA shelter.

"They called one day and asked what our needs were," said Kathy Ivey, an executive assistant for the YWCA. "We've chosen to be a recipient, and we're excited about that."

Roughly 30 years ago, the women decided to pool their resources to commit what would come to be known as random acts of kindness — paying utility or grocery bills, helping single mothers buy their children school clothes, making car payments, or sending cakes and other goodies to people in the hospital.

"They decided to take a different path. People were just looking on and complaining, and they wanted to do something different," Bowman said.

The women find recipients by scanning birth announcements and obituaries or by choosing names at random from the phone book. Sometimes they overhear conversations that inspire them to give. On average, the group gives about 10 gifts every week.

"They randomly select strangers and surreptitiously send them a happy package [with] one of their homemade cakes, citrus curd, a T-shirt or bag, and a note signed by one of the Nanas," said Sarah Hughes, the group's media relations specialist. "Many people are taken aback that someone who doesn't know them would do something so nice."

Said Bowman: "It makes you feel like you're stepping into Santa's boots and giving gifts to children. It's like being a fairy godmother."

Or maybe the Publishers Clearinghouse prize squad. That's how it felt for Jolena Campbell and her family, who received an unexpected Christmas gift last year.

"Out of the blue, we get this Visa gift card for $300 with a short note that said something like, 'Spend this if you need it, but share it if you don't,'" the Olive Branch resident wrote in an e-mail. "Me and my husband were absolutely floored! With the tough economy, we were planning to cut back on Christmas gifts for the kids. To say it couldn't have come at a better time is an understatement."

And how it got to the Campbell family — nobody knows. Recipients never learn how they were found or who decided to help them. They just know the happiness that happens when someone cares, even if that someone is anonymous.

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