Recession Angel: Anonymous Donor Gives School $3.5M

St.Philips Academy announces anonymous donation of $3.5 Million.Joseph Reilly
An anonymous donor is giving $3.5 million to St. Philip's Academy, a private school serving disadvantaged children in Newark, N.J..

Even in the depths of the recession, a number of Americans have stepped forward to help those in need through extraordinary acts of generosity and kindness.

Call them recession angels -- people who have taken their own money to help their communities as everybody else pulls back on spending.

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St. Philip's Academy, a private school serving disadvantaged children in Newark, N.J., was the beneficiary of one recession angel's largesse: a $3.5 million donation. The award is one of the largest in the school's history. It will help pay for students' tuition, aid for students' families if they have fallen on hard times, a new summer program for public school children held at St. Philip's, and some of the costs of a new school building.

VIDEO: Lake Forest College alumna Grace Groner bequeaths $7 million to her alma mater.Play
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The donor's identity has been kept private.

"I think that the donor wants to enjoy the fact that he's given to the school without gloating about it," said St. Philip's Chief Administrative Officer Tom Hooper.

The sluggish economy has taken its toll on St. Philip's student body, which includes 375 children in kindergarten through eighth grade. School officials say that greater financial need by students means that the school will give away more than $1 million in tuition aid in the next school year. For the current school year, St. Philip's financial aid awards have totalled roughly $900,000.

"In these times, when so many people are cutting back and so many people aren't able to step up and give, this particular donor has said, 'I'll help make a difference right now, this year,'" Hooper said.

The school has had a number of other anonymous donors over the years, including one who left school officials stunned a decade ago. In 2000, a clergyman called the school to say that an anonymous $1 million donation was waiting for St. Philip's officials at a bank in Montclair, N.J. In that case, the school never learned the donor's name.

"We just know they are very gracious people who give generously and are committed to the mission of St. Philip's," said Michael Eaton, the school's director of development.

On the following pages, takes a look at more recession angels.

Woman Bequeaths Entire Estate to College; Anonymous Donors Gives Millions to Other Schools

Grace Groner passed away in January at the age of 100. For much of her adult life she lived modestly in a one bedroom home in Lake Forest, Ill., an affluent Chicago suburb.

Groner's single indulgence was a scholarship program she created for Lake Forest College,, her alma mater. Years ago, she donated $180,000 for a scholarship program that enables some of the college's 1,300 students to pursue internships and study-abroad programs.

But even college administrators were stunned to find out that upon her death Groner bequeathed her entire estate to the college. The total amount: $7 million.

Grace Groner, second left, stands with her twin sister Gladys at Lake Forest College in Chicago, in this Feb. 1928 file photo.

Stephen Schutt, Lake Forest's president, told the Chicago Tribune that he knew of Groner's plan for her estate for more than a year, but that he had no idea how large the gift would be until after her death.

Equally amazing in an era of gyrating financial markets is how Groner amassed her wealth. It stemmed from a $180 stock purchase she made some seven decades ago, her attorney and long-time friend told the Tribune.

William Marlatt says that in 1935, Groner bought three $60 shares of specially issued Abbott Laboratories stock and never sold them. Groner work as a secretary at Abbott for 43 years. The shares split a number of times over the next seventy years and Groner reinvested the dividends, says Marlatt, who says long before Groner passed away, her initial stock purchase had become a fortune.

"She did not have the (material) needs that other people have," Marlatt told the Tribune. "She could have lived in any house in Lake Forest but she chose not to."

And about that modest, white shingle house that Groner lived quietly in for years? She left that to the college, as well. It will be turned into "Grace's Cottage," a living quarters for women who receive foundation scholarships.

Lake Forest wasn't the only college surprised by a generous donation during the recession. In the spring of 2009, at least nine American universities received donations of well more than $1 million each from anonymous donors, the Associated Press reported.

The donations ranged in size from $1.5 million for the University of North Carolina-Asheville to $8 million for Purdue University in Indiana.

"We are just so overwhelmed by the generosity of this anonymous donor's gift," Purdue spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg told ABC News. "And it really reinforces, I think, the goodness of people that is just so uplifting for us." At the University of Southern Mississippi -- which received $6 million from an anonymous donor in March -- the gift came in the nick of time.

David Wolf, USM's vice president for advancement, said that the recession and faltering stock market had forced the university to cut back on scholarships.

"A number of our endowed scholarships will not be able to produce this year any earnings to provide scholarships," he said. "The timing of this gift couldn't be any more meaningful to a university like ours so we could pick up the slack and continue to grow."

Pharmacy Owner Gives Cash Bonuses to Stimulate Local Business

Then there's Danny Cottrell, the owner of a pharmacy in a tiny town in southern Alabama.

He decided last year that the town of Brewton needed its own stimulus and that his 24 employees deserved a little something extra. So he doled out $16,000 in cash bonuses. Every full-time worker got $700 and every part-time employee got $300.

Cottrell asked only that his workers donate 15 percent to a charity or somebody who was in worse shape than they were, and then take the rest and spend it at local businesses. To track the local impact of his "stimulus," Cottrell handed out the bonuses in $2 bills.

"I handed them their $2 bills and turned them loose," he told ABC News. "They've done a good job. I've been very pleased. They bought into it. It's really been a lot of fun. It's sort of taken on a life of its own."

The money has been spent on clothing, livestock feed, auto parts and at restaurants and bakeries in the town of roughly 5,500 people.

Pharmacist Danny Cottrell with his employees and their $2 bills.

"A lot of them were businesses that they had never been to before," Cottrell said. "They're like everybody else. They're immediately attracted to the big-box stores."

Lonna Jackson has worked for seven years as a cashier at Cottrell's pharmacy.

When Cottrell gathered his employees for an announcement, she and some of her co-workers feared the worst: layoffs. Then he announced the bonuses.

"We sat there, mouths opened. Some cried. We were all just in shock," Jackson said.

With her $700, Jackson donated money to a neighbor in need and then bought fabric for her sewing group which makes baby blankets for neonatal units at area hospitals. She plans on spending the rest of the money on car tires.

The money was a big help for Jackson who has been trimming her spending, fearing a layoff or some other recession-related challenge.

"You cut back on everything because you just don't know," she said.

When she got the cash, Jackson thought carefully about where to spend it.

"When you have it in your hand, it makes you think of the smaller stores and businesses that are struggling right now," she said.

And as cashier at the pharmacy, she has seen plenty of those $2 bills circle back to Cottrell's business.

"I just hope there are more people out there like him," she said.

Doctor Gives Free Health Care

Cottrell isn't alone in thinking that small acts of kindness can make a big difference in peoples' lives.

In the Minneapolis suburbs, a six-physician gynecological practice has started giving free preventive care to any of its existing patients who lost their medical insurance because of layoffs.

Dr. K. Anthony Shibley has been offering free check-ups for uninsured patients.

"It's not going to kill us to do a little extra work," Dr. K. Anthony Shibley said. "They probably already have enough bill collectors calling them."

The patients can get one free preventive-care visit and a free Pap smear. If they also want tests for sexually transmitted diseases or cholesterol screening, the doctors are offering those services at a reduced rate. The plan resulted from the worries of a few longtime patients who no longer had insurance.

"We have a doctor-patient relationship," Shibley said. "It's not exactly a business-client relationship."

Bank Owner Distributes $60 Million in Employee Bonuses

Perhaps the best-known recession angel is Leonard Abess Jr., who was singled out by President Obama in February, 2009 for his generosity.

After selling his Miami bank, Abess quietly handed out $60 million in bonuses from his own pocket. The money didn't just go to bank executives but also to tellers, secretaries, clerks and former workers.

Using a formula to weigh years of service and salary, he divvied up the money among the bank's 399 current employees and 72 former ones. Checks ranged from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $100,000.

"My father was a banker," Abess told ABC News. "I grew up at the dinner table with tales of the depression and tales of what a banker meant to a community, about responsibility, handling other people's money. And that these are your neighbors, the people you live with, you see all the time and you have to protect their money."

Leonard Abess Jr. and longtime bank employee Geneva Lawson of Florida as President Obama introduced him during a Congressional address.

Linda Naughton, who has worked at City National for 50 years, said, "There's no better place to work."

She started as a file clerk, rising to the position of managing senior vice president. "It's the only job I've ever had."

Abess, who remains as chairman and CEO of the bank, said its success is all about the workers, which is not a line you hear too often in corporate America today.

"When I sold the bank, I didn't want the money so I gave $60 million of it to my employees. And I feel really good about it," Abess said.

Indiana Food Drive

Last March, Scott Tuttle, president of Livin' Lite Recreational Vehicles, organized a giant food distribution program with Feed The Children, aiming to give food and care packages to 6,000 people spread out over eight towns in northern Indiana.

"I do have a business to run, but you know what? Something like this is more important to me than just keeping my head down and taking care of myself," Tuttle said.

After coordinating with area churches, truck drivers and the food donors, he got his hands dirty packing up boxes with other volunteers.

How much time has he put into the effort?

"I don't know. I haven't kept track of it," he said. "It's been a significant amount of time, but it's worth it."

"I'm just typical of the kind of people around here," he added. "There just a lot of good people in this area and when other people are hurting, they're willing to go out of their way to help get them back on their feet and get through things."

Gourmet Chef Helps Homeless

Timothy Tucker used to work at high-end restaurants in Seattle and Dallas, catering to well-to-do Americans.

Today he couldn't be further from the well-heeled. Tucker is helping the homeless and those living below the poverty line in Louisville, Ky., learn to cook healthy meals using fresh ingredients. Tucker hopes that once they learn various culinary skills, they can land jobs at local restaurants.

"We've never seen anything like this before," he said of the current economic climate.

His classes, taught through the Salvation Army, also feed 400 people a day at a homeless shelter.

Chef Timothy Tucker teaching and preparing a dish with his class.

Tucker said that his program is "much more magical and special" than his prior jobs.

"Here we are able to cook great food and use it to heal people's lives," he said. "It's a much bigger thing in life that cooking incredibly beautiful food for people who have a lot of money to pay for it."

Student Skipping Spring Break to Build House

Spring break is typically a time to go to the beach, relax, party or on a more moderate budget stay home and relax on the couch with a good movie or two. But Haydar Ali, a junior at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, decided last year to spend his spring break helping an unemployed man in Detroit.

Ali led a team of college students for the United Way make upgrades at the man's house.

"In these times of economic decline, more than ever we need to step up as humans and help out," Ali said.

So no beer, beach or boardwalks for Ali. Just some lumber, nails and a lesson about the economy.

"Nobody is really immune to the recession and that's why we need to all get together and help out. That way, nobody goes down without a fight," he said. "We're all interrelated in this world."

ABC News' Troy McMullen contributed to this report.