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Image: Wyatt Erber and Cara Kietly
Courtesy Trisha Kielty
Wyatt Erber, 8, and Cara Kietly, 2, share a laugh together at Cara's home in late July. Wyatt just donated a $1,000 prize he received to help pay for the little girl's leukemia treatments.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 9/6/2012 11:21:28 AM ET 2012-09-06T15:21:28

Wyatt Erber is awfully single-minded for an 8-year-old. When he learned about an extensive, summer-long scavenger hunt in his town, he went for it. And when he learned the scavenger hunt winner would pocket a cool $1,000, he immediately knew what he would do with the money.

“He said, ‘Let’s do this to help Cara!’” said Wyatt’s mom, Noelle Erber, 40, of Edwardsville, Ill. “I remember thinking, ‘Who am I to tell him that he might not win?’”

It turns out that Wyatt did win — and, without hesitation, made good on his promise. He gave all his winnings to Cara Kielty, a 2-year-old girl who lives on his street and was diagnosed with leukemia in May.

“I wanted to help her,” Wyatt told TODAY.com.

As soon as he learned he had triumphed in the scavenger hunt, he rushed to the phone and called Cara’s mom, Trisha Kielty, 40.

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“I won!” he announced.

“You did not win,” Kielty said, laughing.

“Yes, I did!” Wyatt insisted.

“No, you didn’t — you’re joking!” Kielty replied.

“Here! Talk to my Mom!”

When Kielty realized that Wyatt wasn’t kidding, she almost dropped the phone. Then she started saying that she couldn’t possibly accept money from an 8-year-old.

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“I said, ‘That is not happening!’” Kielty recalled. “My husband said the same thing. We’re adults — that would be ridiculous, right?”

But, after much back and forth with Wyatt’s parents, the Kieltys realized how much Wyatt had wanted to do this from the beginning. What affected them most of all was when they heard the question Wyatt had asked his parents about the money he had won: “How much chemotherapy will this buy Cara?”

“When I heard that, I thought, wow,” Kielty said. “I knew his mom must be so proud of him for being that compassionate and that giving, and I knew we just had to accept it.”

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Neighbors step up
Caring for Cara — and for Cara’s parents — has become a grassroots group effort in the family’s close-knit neighborhood ever since the youngster was diagnosed May 21. While Cara’s parents spent long days with their little girl at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, neighbors stepped forward in ways large and small: mowing the lawn, creating a Pedal the Cause cycling team in Cara’s honor, organizing other charity events for the family, setting up a dinner-cooking schedule that went on for weeks.

Wyatt has been observing all of this, and it’s left an impression on him. He’s also been affected by participating with his parents in Cookies for Kids’ Cancer charitable bake sale events.

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Image: Wyatt Erber, 8, and Cara Kielty, 2, together
Courtesy Trisha Kielty
Cara Kielty, 2, snuggles up to Wyatt Erber, 8, during a visit together on Aug. 11. "He's so good with her," Cara's mom Trisha Kielty said of Wyatt.

“He bakes dog cookies with his sister Anna, and they always sell out,” said Wyatt’s mom, who works as a tax law analyst. “We’ve exposed him to the whole idea of helping other people and understanding what cancer is — that, basically, it’s not what you want.”

Wyatt is close friends with Cara’s older brother, Connor, who also is 8. When Wyatt learned that his buddy’s little sister had cancer, he jumped into action.

“Right away he came home and emptied out his piggybank — you know, something an 8-year-old can do,” Erber said. “And then he heard about the scavenger hunt.”

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Sponsored by First Clover Leaf Bank in Edwardsville, the hunt called for finding clues at local businesses around town all summer long. Wyatt never lost interest in the game and never forgot why he was doing it.

“I thought this would help them buy medicine for Cara,” Wyatt said.

‘It’s opened our eyes’
Cara was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form that children get, and has been receiving weekly chemotherapy treatments. At times, she feels truly miserable. On other days, though, Cara is her usual silly, funny, sassy self. Doctors have told the Kieltys to be prepared for two and a half years of ongoing cancer treatments. They’ve also said Cara should have a 90 percent chance of being cured.

Trisha Kielty, who audits files from home for a living, and her husband, Jim Kielty, 42, who works for U.S. Bank, said the kindness of their neighbors has buoyed them on dark days and has made it possible for them to stay focused on what matters most: being there for all three of their kids, Cara, Connor and Craig, 4.

Story: At 83, he gave his kidney to a stranger

“It’s really opened our eyes,” Trisha Kielty said. “My husband and I, we thought we were OK people, but now we see, wow, we could be so much better. I mean, my daughter is ill and that’s horrible ... but because this happened we’ve seen people’s true colors, and it’s made us much better people.

“The next time I see someone who needs a dinner schedule or some other kind of help, I’m going to be the first one to sign up.”

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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

  1. Closed captioning of: Man leaves will asking family to leave $500 tips

    >>> 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.


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