Aaron Collins always had a soft spot for food servers, even as a kid. “If he felt like Mom and Dad didn’t leave a generous enough tip, he’d take a few dollars from his allowance and toss it on the table,” recalled his brother Seth. He once left a $50 tip for a struggling waitress with a note that urged her not to give up. “When she saw that, her whole attitude changed,” said Seth.
When Aaron died from what was ruled a suicide during the summer of 2012, he left a specific provision in his will: “Go out to dinner and leave an awesome tip — not 25 percent but like $500 for pizza — for a waiter or waitress,” said Seth. “His will in general and his attitude weren’t about him, they were about things he wanted to do for other people.”
Seth took Aaron’s idea to heart, forming Aaron’s Last Wish, in Lexington, Ky. He is now traveling the country, spreading Aaron’s respect for food service one $500 tip at a time. So far, the one-man organization has left 94 tips in 48 states totaling $47,000. His next stops are on the East Coast, heading to Philadelphia, Delaware, Baltimore, Richmond, Va., Ashville, N.C., South Carolina and south Florida. His goal is to leave a $500 tip in all 50 states.
“I’ll keep doing it for as long as we have the money to do it,” said Seth. “I won’t keep traveling full time (after going to all 50 states), but I’ll keep leaving tips for as long as we have funds available.”
Stephanie Watson, a waitress at the Iron Hill Brewery in Newark, Del., was a recent recipient of a $500 cash tip from Seth. Collins left the tip on Dec. 30, and it was the 90th tip he’d left. “It’s really, really amazing what he’s doing for his brother,” said Watson. “The rest of the staff thought it was amazing, and it was inspiring to other people around as well.” Watson said she’d use the money for a trip.
“I think it’s awesome of (Seth),” said Taylor Dube, a server at the Portsmouth Gas Light Company in Portsmouth, N.H. Dube received Seth’s 83rd tip on December 12. “I’m just glad he’s going through the United States so everyone can hear his story. Hopefully they’ll think to be a little nicer when they hear about his brother.”
Dube, who has worked at the Portsmouth Gas Light Company for about three years, said Collins stood up, briefly explained his brother’s provision in his will and gave her the tip. “It was just a normal day at the buffet,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it. He stood up and started filming me. He told me the story and gave me the money.” She said customers recognize her from the video and joke that they can’t afford to tip like that. Dube and Collins have stayed in touch occasionally through text messages and Facebook, she said.
Brittany Harper, at Gusano’s in Little Rock, Ark., used the tip Seth gave her on November 24 — tip number 80 — to get her daughter’s Christmas presents out of layaway and to help pay the rent. “I think it’s awesome that people are donating money,” said Harper. “It makes people feel very special and it makes their day. Seth is helping out a lot of people. I don’t think anyone expects something like that. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Mike McCaw, a server at Picco in Boston, said he wasn’t too surprised to receive Seth’s 84th tip. “I really believe people are kind,” he said. McCaw, who has been at Picco for five months, said Seth’s party seemed distracted during their visit. “They were the only customers I’ve had who were thinking about the tip for the whole meal,” he said. “It’s really touching, what (Seth is) doing for his brother. It’s an honor to be part of it.”
Seth said Aaron’s Last Wish has “at least 4,000 donors, and probably more like 5,000 or 6,000.” The average donation is about $10. Seth has let word of his organization grow virally. “When I come to a new town, someone there in the media hears about it and wants to cover it,” he said. “Sometimes they’re there to cover the moment and sometimes they’ve heard about it after and want to cover it. But public relations isn’t something I’ve pursued.”
Though Seth takes family and friends with him on some of his trips to distribute the tips, he said Aaron’s Last Wish is a solo operation. “As far as the background stuff, it’s all me,” he said. “Right now, this is the only job. It doesn’t leave much time for anything but driving and editing video.”
Wherever Seth goes, he takes video and posts it to the Aaron’s Last Wish website and its YouTube account. “That’s very important, because for the first tip, when the donations started coming in, the reason people said they donated was that they wanted to get to see that reaction (of the server),” said Seth. “I felt like they were donating to make someone’s day, but also so they can see it and feel like they’re a part of it. For the people who have donated to us, that lets them be a part of the experience.” NPT