Decades ago when Mike Esmond was raising his young family, they struggled to pay their heating bill.
One winter, their gas was shut off and the family of five was stuck without heat during a record cold winter.
“It was the coldest winter Pensacola ever had," Esmond recalled to TODAY on Thursday, saying temperatures had been in the single digits. “We didn’t have any heat. Our windows had ice and icicles on it.”
Decades later, he was reminded of that very cold Christmas as he opened his gas and water bill earlier this month. He noticed the due date was Dec. 26.
“That made something pop into my mind, that people have to pay these bills by Dec. 26,” he said. “If they don’t pay them, they’re going to be disconnected, and they’re not going have gas or water for the holidays.”
As that realization dawned on him, Esmond decided to take action. Now a 73-year-old successful business owner, he was in a comfortable position to help.
He went to the city of Gulf Breeze, Florida — where he lives — and asked them to put together a list of all the people that were slated to have their gas and water shut off by that Dec. 26 date.
Esmond said they told him a total of 36 families needed his help, so he decided to pay off their bills for around $4,600.
He said he thought that would be the end of it.
“When I did this, I didn’t even know that the city was going to do what they did!” he laughed. “The ladies in the billing department actually used their computers to make up a Christmas card and they sent it out to all the people that were expecting their gas to be disconnected.”
The card wished folks a “happy holidays” on the front in cheerful red and green, but it was the note on the inside that has struck a chord across the United States:
“It is our honor and privilege to inform you that your past due utility bill has been paid by Gulf Breeze Pools & Spas. You can rest easier this holiday season knowing you have one less bill to pay.”
Esmond said he had no idea the city had sent out the card, and then all of a sudden, people started reaching out to him to say thank you.
“The people that receive this card and found out they didn’t owe anything started reaching out to me and messaging me and thanking me, and I was like, ‘How did you know?!’” he chuckled.
Turns out, the city had forgotten to print and send a 37th card to him! Eventually, Esmond got his own copy of the card, and now he's hoping his simple act of kindness inspires people to pay it forward.
“I never expected people to be so appreciative of me doing something I thought was a simple gesture to make Christmas better for some families,” he said. “I started out, I thought this would be a cool thing to do and people who are worried about paying bills are going to find out that they don’t have to pay the bills. But I never knew it would snowball the way it has.”
Esmond said he’s gotten messages of support from all over, including South America and Canada. He said some people have said they're going to do the same thing he did, while others have told him they're going to volunteer more.
“I just wanted to do something this time of the year — Christmastime — to do something to help families that really needed help,” he said. “I’m just as surprised and overwhelmed as everybody else.”