HOBOKEN, N.J. After Aaron Collins died suddenly, his family began carrying out his final wishes. In his will, Collins made a simple, yet outlandish, request: Go out for dinner, and leave a generous tip - we're talking $500 for pizza.
What started as a one-time gesture has turned into a cross-country mission. After the first dinner, donations started pouring in to the family. His older brother Seth Collins, of Livingston, Ky., has dished out more than $41,000 in tips to waiters and waitresses across the country as part of a nonprofit he started, Aaron's Last Wish.
"Aaron always had a soft spot for people in the service industry, even when he was 12," Seth Collins said. "If Mom and Dad didn't leave what he thought was a generous tip, he'd leave a few more dollars."
To honor his brother, Collins aims to leave a hefty tip for a stranger in every state and has been traveling alone for the last six months to carry out the task. He has five states to go, he said. Recently, he gave a waitress at Onieals Restaurant in Hoboken a $500 tip, the first given in New Jersey, he said.
The waitress, Francesca Brewer, said that when Collins came in on Dec. 18, she'd been stressed over the holidays and the fact that business was slow throughout the day. She said that Seth Collins had been a kind customer but that she expected only a customary tip. Then she received a pleasant surprise.
"It was awesome. Totally unexpected," she said. "I'm happy that this guy chose such a great restaurant to walk into."
Brewer has waitressed at Onieals for the last five years and is currently pursuing her bachelor's degree in English from State University of New York Empire State College. The story of Aaron Collins particularly resonated with her, she said, because her twin sister Liddy died five years ago. She said it was comforting and inspiring to see someone in her position turning loss into something positive.
"Some people just want to curl up in a ball when something like this happens," she said. "It's really inspiring."
Aaron Collins died in July 2012 of unknown causes. He was 30. Aaron Collins always sympathized with people in the service industry, Seth Collins said, but an incident at a restaurant three years before his death largely inspired the request made in his will.
At the time, a new waitress was struggling with her job, dropping drinks and forgetting orders. She told Aaron Collins that she didn't think she'd be able to keep the job. Collins left a $50 tip and a message on the receipt, "Don't give up." The message and tip helped change the waitress' attitude, Seth Collins said.
"I think [Aaron] saw what $50 could do for a person," he said.
Now, Seth Collins experiences this on a larger scale. He said that the tips tend to set in motion a "pay-it-forward" mentality among the recipients. Collins' good deed inspires them to perform random acts of kindness.
"It's been incredibly rewarding," he said. "I love getting to inspire people to be generous."