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Video: Man leaves will asking family to leave $500 tips

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    >>> back now at 8:20 with a harm warming story born from one family's difficult loss. erin collins died unexpectedly last month but left his family with a very specific wish. leave someone a $500 tip. they have done more than that. we'll talk to the family in a moment. first kerry sanders has the story. kerry, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning. i'm at the old fort lauderdale breakfast staff where the wait staff hasn't seen this big tip but it's a movement you may have heard tips, to in sure prompt service. now it has taken on new meaning, the inspirational power of sharing. it can be one of the hardest, most thankless jobs in america, serving food and surviving on tips. erin collins knew that. he worked at a pizzeria in kentucky. 30 years old, aaron died unexpectedly. he left his family a challenge to do what he hoped to do someday, go out to dinner and leave a $500 tip. for fun, the family videotaped.

    >> are you kidding me? oh my god.

    >> his brother posted it online.

    >> he was trying to think about people who don't necessarily get a lot of appreciation but who no one is out there thinking of.

    >> reporter: it went viral leading to donations like 13-year-old nathan who sent $20 and wrote "inspired by your story."

    >> are you serious? can i have a hug? oh my god. the unbridled joy touching his mother. she grew up in the appalachians in a house that cost less than the first $500 they scraped together.

    >> he left great joy for us. i don't know that i could have survived the loss of aaron without this.

    >> reporter: now there's more than $50,000, enough for more than 100 $500 tips. waitress sarah ward , studying ecology always said she wanted to change the world but didn't expect it would be like this.

    >> always wanted to touch people but didn't know it would be on the receiving end as a waitress. i thought it would be for the environment or polar bears , not a tip.

    >> that's for you. it's $500 from him.

    >> reporter: 22-year-old graduate student was tipped wednesday.

    >> helps to know there's good people in the world.

    >> where does it end?

    >> hopefully it doesn't end.

    >> reporter: a sign this is a movement that is spreading. a passenger took a short ride in a cabin san francisco . ette out and gave the cabdriver a $500 tip and said it was in memory of aaron . savannah.

    >> kerry sanders , thank you. aaron 's family is with us. his brother seth, mom, tina ray collins and sister and joined by jamie fuller, one of the great waitresses that experienced this act of charity. good morning to all of you. this is a sorry about inspiration and generosity but i know your family has suffered a terrible loss. how are you doing, tina ?

    >> i'm doing a lot better than i would have expected. i think it's because of this. it gives us something to focus on instead of our grief.

    >> apparently aaron wrote this in a will a couple years ago. it had a pretty simple instruction, right?

    >> to leave an awesome tip. i'm not talking about 25%, i mean $500 on a pizza. that's where we started.

    >> he was pretty clear. don't go to the fancy restaurants.

    >> pizza, $500. that's a big tip on a pizza.

    >> what has it been like to be the giver of this generosity?

    >> it's been a huge blessing for me just to be able to touch people like that and see their reaction. i'm really nervous going into it. then as soon as i hand them that money, i sort of get to step back and let them control the situation and see how they are going to react. it's different every time.

    >> rachel, is this something in keeping with your brother's personality?

    >> yeah. he always wanted to do something to help people and to make people happy and bring joy to people. he was always about having fun , bringing joy to other people.

    >> and what is the reaction, generally, when you tell them, i'm leaving you this $500 tip? i imagine people are stunned.

    >> always been disbelief. that's where it starts. you're joking, kidding, not serious. that's always the beginning.

    >> let's go to the source on that jamie , you worked at a restaurant in kentucky. how did you feel?

    >> shocked. i thought it was a joke at first. you're getting through your workday and you're rushed. then this guy just hands you $500. what? this don't happen. so it's very shocking, emotional.

    >> i know one of the things you did was give back some of your tip?

    >> i did. i sent $50 back.

    >> that's really caught on, tina . you've gotten a lot of donations. so is the plan to keep on giving out tips?

    >> as long as the good people giving the money will keep gig, we will continue to give out the tips. i just want to say how thankful i am this is not just aaron 's week, it's people all over the country and the world now.

    >> you've done an amazing thing. i know you're keeping his memory alive as well. i want to thank you, collins family, for being with us and jamie fuller. appreciate it.

TODAY contributor
updated 8/21/2012 10:49:15 AM ET 2012-08-21T14:49:15

Kentucky man Aaron Collins, 30, died unexpectedly on July 7 from causes that are still being investigated. In his will he left a particular request: “Leave an awesome tip — and I don’t mean 25 percent. I mean $500 on a pizza.’’

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Collins didn’t have the financial means to honor the request, so his family set up a website to help attract donations. Less than two months later, the site has raised more than $57,000 and allowed Collins' brother, Seth, to leave one server a week in disbelief when he hands over a $500 tip following an inexpensive meal. The family's videos of the servers' reactions, posted to YouTube, have gone viral with more than 2.5 million total views.

Dying man's wish fulfilled: $500 tip for waitress

“He wanted to do something to help people and to make people happy and just bring joy to people,’’ Collins' sister, Rachel Johnson, told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Tuesday. “He was always about having fun and just bringing joy to other people.’’

“He was trying to think about people who don’t necessarily get a lot of appreciation, but who no one is out there thinking of,’’ his brother, Seth Collins, told NBC News.

Aaron Collins' mom, Tina Rae, and brother, Seth, are carrying out his charitable wishes.

Aaron worked at a pizzeria in rural Kentucky, so he knew first-hand about having to survive on tips. Now, his brother gets to experience the emotional outpouring of hugs and stunned reactions when he hands over each tip. He gave the first $500 on July 10 and has given out one per week since then, including one in a diner in Manhattan on Sunday after flying in for the appearance on TODAY.

“It’s been a huge blessing for me just to be able to touch people like that and see their reaction,’’ Seth said. “I’m really nervous going into it, and then as soon as I hand them that money I just get to step back and just let them control the situation and see how they’re going to react. It’s different every time.

“It’s always been disbelief. That’s where it starts. ‘You’re joking, you’re kidding, you’re not serious, right?’ It’s always the beginning. Then it sets in.”

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Jamie Fuller knows the feeling. In a video posted Aug. 8, the waitress at Wick’s Pizza Parlor in Louisville can be seen covering her mouth and fighting back tears after hearing the story behind the tip she got from Seth. She gave $50 of it back to the family for Aaron’s charity and told TODAY Tuesday she put the rest toward taking care of her baby.

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“I thought it was a joke at first,’’ Fuller told Guthrie. “You’re getting through your workday and you’re rushed, and then this guy just hands you $500 and you’re like, ‘What? This doesn’t happen.’ So it’s very shocking. It’s emotional.’’

The spirit of generosity has caught on, and the family has received a variety of contributions to the cause, including $20 from a 13-year-old boy in Massachusetts. They have even heard a story about a passenger in San Francisco taxi who gave the cabbie a $500 tip recently, in memory of Aaron.

"I’m doing a lot better than I would’ve expected, and I think it’s because of this,’’ Aaron's mother, Tina Rae Collins, told Guthrie. “It gives us something to focus on instead of our grief.’’

With enough money to give out more than 100 tips, the family plans on continuing to make Aaron’s wish come true on a weekly basis.

“As long as the good people who are giving the money will keep giving, we will continue to give out the tips,’’ his mother said. “I just want to say how thankful I am because this is not just Aaron’s wish. It’s people all over this country and the world now.”

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