12/22/2008 at 01:00 AM EST
In holiday seasons past, at State Bank & Trust in Fargo, N. Dak., boss Michael Solberg tried to reward his hardworking staff, giving away top prizes like flat-screen TVs and Caribbean vacations at game-filled parties. But last December the gregarious father of two and third-generation banker decided to start a new tradition. Inspired by an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show
, Solberg, 36, cut each of his 460 full-time employees a $1,000 check—with a catch: They had to pay it forward. They did, with gusto, establishing projects and foundations to help more than 300 families, 100 schools and hospitals, and 200 nonprofit and community groups in the state. "It can be addictive, helping others," says human-resources manager Julie Peterson Klein, who, with Solberg and others, used her check to help buy cars for struggling families. "It's made everyone think, 'What else can I do?'"
Beds of Their Own
In her five years of life, little Kataryna Nelson had never slept on a real bed—bunking instead on a small mattress and a bunch of two-by-fours mom Rayelle had salvaged from a lumberyard for 23 cents apiece. "I couldn't afford a box spring," says Rayelle, 33, an epilepsy sufferer who uses a cane to get around and was herself sleeping on a rummage-sale bed with jutting-out springs that scraped her legs. She says she has skipped meals for days at a time to make sure her daughter has enough to eat. So when four State Bank employees showed up at her apartment with two just-purchased beds and sheets, pillows and blankets still in the packages, Rayelle couldn't believe her eyes. "Everything was so brand-spanking-new," she says. "Those people were God's gift." Now, when Rayelle tucks Kataryna in at night, "she's the happiest little munchkin in the world."
A Car for a Single Mom
In 2007, after beating a crystal meth addiction, Betty Torres, 34, was putting her life back together, but her broken-down '91 Cadillac kept stalling those plans. Last summer State Bankers, including Solberg and Klein, found Betty through the YWCA and gave her a 2000 Plymouth minivan. That freed up the mom of three—who took the bus to work as a hotel housekeeper—to get a better job at a meatpacking plant further away and to pick up her kids at school.
BETTY: I have an office now! We went from having nothing to everything you could possibly need. I'll be driving in my van sometimes, and the tears just start rolling.
JESMERALDA (daughter, 15): Now I can actually join stuff, like ROTC, and have my mom pick me up.
BETTY: How much people care—you just don't know.
Help for Skylar
A FAMILY'S BURDEN: Liza and Nathan Gion had overcome a lot with their 4-year-old daughter, Skylar, who has cerebral palsy. But they struggled to carry her 50-lb. wheelchair up and down the stairs from the driveway to their ranch-style house. "It caused us back problems," says Liza, 28, a bartender, "and it was jarring for Skylar."
A SPECIAL BOND: No one sympathized more than State Bank information systems employee Laura Anderson: Her 3-year-old, Catlyn, has CP. In June she showed up with 18 volunteers to build a wheelchair ramp in front of the Gions' house in 90-degree heat. "To watch them put their heart and soul into it was indescribable," says Liza of the installation, which drew on $15,000 in labor and materials. As for Skylar, "she loves it," Liza says. "This is awesome."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM