NEW SNEAKERS FOR THOUSANDS OF CHICAGO SCHOOLKIDS

Few things in life make Chiquita Meeks feel as good as driving to the hoop and sinking a shot in a tight game. In basketball, says the 16-year-old junior at Chicago's John Marshall Metropolitan High, "you have to really push yourself to show what you can do." But if Meeks has no shortage of spirit, there was one thing she did lack: new basketball shoes to replace her old ones. So, when her coach announced this fall that Meeks and her 12 teammates would each be getting a new pair of $85 Nike Women Air Taurasi hightops, the 5'7" forward was thrilled: "Having new shoes, you know you're looking good. And they make you play better because they feel better on your feet."

The donor—whom school officials identify as an ex-Chicago resident and basketball fan—bought shoes for about 6,000 local boys and girls this year, at a cost of $300,000, and has promised to keep players shod for the next decade. At John Marshall, where 88 percent of kids come from low-income homes, the gift couldn't be more welcome. "We haven't had new uniforms in about seven years," says athletic director Dorothy Gaters. "We're very pleased to have the shoes." Meeks vows to thank their benefactor with all-out effort on the court: "He believes in us. And we believe in him."

A SECRET MENTOR

Amanda Reding was in her first year at Minnesota's University of St. Thomas when a mysterious letter arrived. A $10 bill was enclosed, along with the suggestion that Reding do something fun. The strangest part was the signature: "Barnabas"—a reference to the Biblical apostle who offered advice to St. Paul. "It was nice to know someone was thinking of you," says Reding, 22, now a senior.

Thus ensued an epistolary friendship—that, it turns out, has started up each year since 1997 between Barnabas and one college-bound member of the United Methodist Church in Rosemount. Barnabas sends students modest amounts of money during their first two years—in all he has given $1,500—and occasional letters of encouragement. When the students finish their sophomore year, Barnabas offers to reveal himself, provided the student keep his identity secret so he can carry on the tradition. Speaking to PEOPLE on condition of anonymity, Barnabas says only that he's a 39-year-old father of two whose own spirits were buoyed in college by monthly cards from a family friend. "These kids are venturing off for the first time," Barnabas says. "I want to help them maintain a connection."

Reding has since learned Barnabas's true identity. But, Barnabas says, about half the students choose to remain in the dark, perhaps finding comfort in the anonymity. "There's no risk," he says, "in sharing with someone you may never meet."

AFTER KATRINA, A FAMILY GETS $25,000 TO START OVER

After years of struggle, Kimball Minor could see a brighter day. Working full-time as a home health aide and attending college by night to earn a degree in pharmacy technology, the single mother of three had saved to buy a new living-room set. "Once I finished school," she says, "I wanted to buy a new home."

But Minor, 31, lived in New Orleans, and when Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, it washed away her dreams. "I never had the opportunity to salvage anything," says Minor, who fled with her children—Cynika, 17, Theron, 14, and Malik, 10—544 miles to Lewisville, Texas, where she got work as a receptionist at Christian Community Action, a crisis relief agency. She was at a Nov. 11 luncheon honoring volunteers when a speaker told how an anonymous donor had given $25,000 to go to one needy family. As Minor listened to the description of the winning family—a mom in school, three kids—something suddenly clicked, and the tears started to flow. "I was like, 'Me?' " she recalls. "Words cannot explain." Says Ed Johnson, president of the agency: "She's overcome a lot of adversity and stayed very positive and strong."

Minor plans to purchase a reliable car, go back to school—and, she hopes, put some cash in the bank to buy that house someday. And if she ever meets her benefactor? "I would give them a big hug and thank them so much for opening their heart and caring."

A CELLO FOR A GIRL WITH A DREAM

Clare Bradford was 4 when she first heard a recording of Yo-Yo Ma and decided she, too, wanted to be a cellist. "She's always had strong ideas," says her father, Mark, 48. "She wouldn't give us any peace until we found her a teacher and got her an instrument."

Clare's talent grew quickly—and so did Clare. At 7, she took part in a master class with famed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and played alongside the pros of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a special concert for young audiences. And, by mid-2003, Clare had clearly outgrown her quarter-size cello. To continue to progress at her advanced level, she needed a first-rate instrument to replace it—difficult for the Bradfords, who support five other kids on Mark's salary as development director of a nonprofit group.

Then her parents learned of the perfect cello for the pint-size prodigy: Built around 1820 in England, it was going for $6,000 at a Boston shop. The Bradfords were struggling to work out a way to buy it when they got a lucky break: A salesman at the shop, Peter Jarvis, knew a wealthy arts patron who had purchased instruments—always anonymously—for college students. The Bradfords sent Jarvis a videotape of Clare's performances, which he sent on to the donor. Shortly after, the cello was bought and paid for. "We were more overjoyed than you can imagine," Mark says. Practicing daily and progressing, at 9 Clare again outgrew her cello, and again, the donor stepped in, buying a $7,500, three-quarter-size cello made in Germany in the early 1900s. "This person must be very generous," says Clare, now 10, who updates her benefactor via letters to Jarvis. "I am very thankful."

AFTER A FATHER'S WAR DEATH, THE GIFT OF AN EDUCATION

It was almost midnight when Cathy Pernaselli's son Michael called from Iraq—where he was posted as a Petty Officer First Class—but still, he asked to say hello to his two sleeping daughters. It would be the last time they would speak to their father. Two days later, on April 24, 2004, a suicide bomber killed Michael, 27, in Basra. Cathy broke the news to Dominique, then 4, and Nicole, 3. "I told them bad men blew up Daddy's boat," she recalls, "and that he was up in heaven." That left Cathy, 51, a high school aide, and her retired husband, John, 53, to raise the girls. (Michael won legal custody after his 2003 divorce.) They planned to send them to Seton Catholic School in their hometown of Brighton, N.Y., outside Rochester. But before Cathy could even enroll them, the principal called: An anonymous benefactor had paid the girls' tuition through sixth grade, worth more than $50,000. "I was dumbfounded," says Cathy. Adds John: "This is nothing you'd ever conceive would come about."

The girls miss their dad terribly but have adjusted well to school. Their grandparents are grateful to hundreds of people who have sent notes of support and, above all, to the mysterious donor. "It's hard to believe," says John, "there are people who do this kind of thing."

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Darla Atlas in Lewisville, Amy Green in Nashville, Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis and Fannie Weinstein in Brighton

  • Contributors:
  • Darla Atlas,
  • Amy Green,
  • Margaret Nelson,
  • Fannie Weinstein.