Don Hanlon Takes Needy Families Shopping with His Own Money
04/25/2013 AT 12:50 PM EDT
In 2001, Hanlon, a retired warehouse worker living off his social security and savings, walked into the office of Family Tree, a Denver, Colo., nonprofit that helps the homeless, and made a stunning offer: He wanted to take a struggling family grocery shopping – and pay the bill.
"It was so unusual," says Rita Caldwell, a Family Tree coordinator. "Other donors just want to write a check, but Don wanted to get personally involved."
Weeks later, Hanlon was paired up with a family at his local Sam's Club, where he pushed a cart as he encouraged them to fill it with $300 worth of meat, vegetables, eggs and toiletries.
That day began a decade-long ritual for Hanlon, who takes a new family, all of whom are in Family Tree's housing program, on a shopping trip each month. Hanlon doesn't set a spending limit and even helps load the groceries in the family's car.
The Britosalas family say that Hanlon is helping to make their struggles easier.
"This was our first time being homeless," says Kristina Britosalas, 31, who along with her husband, Jorge, 39, were laid off in 2008 and temporarily lived out of their van with their five kids last year, "so I felt people looked down on us. But Don made us feel special. He said 'We'll go aisle by aisle, and you just get what you want.' It was like Christmas when our kids saw all the food."
Paid out of his own pocket, the $42,000 he's already spent over the past 11 years has assisted more than 165 families.
"If I can help put food on their table, that's one less thing they have to worry about," says Hanlon, a widower and Korean War veteran who credits his parents with teaching him kindness.
He keeps a box filled with the handwritten thank-you notes he's received over the years.
"Just knowing I'm helping people makes it worth it," he says.
That help was more than much-needed groceries for the Britosalas family.
"Don's generosity boosted our spirits," says Kristina. "He restored my faith in the goodness of people. He gave us hope."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine