In September 2018, Hurricane Florence hit the East Coast, with close to two million residents being ordered to evacuate. Ashleigh Gilleland was one of those people, traveling to Florida alongside her fiancé to escape the storm. However, when she returned to her car one afternoon, she found an unexpected note on the windshield.
Residents of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Ashleigh and her fiancé David Greer fled their home two days before Florence hit the mainland. This particular hurricane was initially classed as a Category Four storm, before being demoted to a Category One. Despite that, though, the damage costs still reached close to an estimated $40 billion by the time it was over.
After quitting their apartment in a hurry, Ashleigh and David arrived in Sarasota, FL, looking to ride out the hurricane from there. Florence made landfall on September 14, 2018, with winds then reaching around 90 mph. The storm lasted five days in total, before being reclassified as a post-tropical cyclone.
Much like the countless other evacuees scattered across the country, the pair patiently waited until they could go home. During that period, they visited a restaurant one afternoon, before returning to their car. However, 21-year-old Ashleigh then noticed a letter wedged under one of the front windshield wipers.
Unsurprisingly, Ashleigh was curious as to the contents of the note, albeit with a hint of cynicism. Indeed, she initially believed that the message would be about how she had parked the vehicle. As the Myrtle Beach resident started reading it, though, that negative mindset quickly changed.
“[I] saw your license plate is from South Carolina,” the note read. “[I’m] not sure if you evacuated from the storm, but just know Florida is praying for you and your state. When we had [Hurricane] Irma, we evacuated to Alabama and received a similar letter on our car, because [of] our Florida license plate.”
“So I wanted to pass it on,” the note concluded. “We understand how it feels to evacuate. God bless. Love Chelsey.” At that point, Ashleigh discovered something else alongside the letter, picking up a $5 bill and a gift card from Walmart. The heartfelt gesture clearly had an effect on the 21-year-old, as she quickly took to Facebook.
Ashleigh posted pictures of the letter, the gift card and the $5 bill on her social media page, along with an accompanying message. “This was left on my windshield outside of Wings N Weenies in Sarasota, Florida,” she wrote. “This just made my day. I’m so happy to know there are still great people in the world. Always pay it forward!”
“Thank you Chelsey, I wish I could thank you in person,” Ashleigh added. “God Bless!” However, not even she could’ve predicted what happened next, as her Facebook post soon went viral. Indeed, the 21-year-old’s words earned over 9,000 likes and close to 10,000 shares from online users.
A few hours after making the post, though, Ashleigh received yet another surprise. The well-wisher directly contacted her, reiterating why she felt the need to write the note. Her name was Chelsey Tokan, an elementary school teacher from Fort Myers, FL.
That message sparked a conversation between the pair, with Ashleigh taking the opportunity to thank Chelsey for her kindness. “I wish I could’ve met you, and I wish I could have returned the favor,” the 21-year-old wrote. “Just know, I will be paying it forward and will be keeping this chain going!”
After getting Chelsey’s permission, Ashleigh then shared their conversation in full on Facebook, grateful that her initial post brought them together. “UPDATE ON FINDING CHELSEY!” she wrote. “She found me! I was personally able to thank her myself. Thank you to EVERY SINGLE PERSON who helped make this happen by sharing! Share the love.”
As the story grew in popularity online, Ashleigh was then contacted by TV network Fox News, with Chelsey’s note hitting the headlines nationwide. “I was overwhelmed and automatically [started] thinking about how I could pay it forward for someone else,” the 21-year-old said of the letter in September, 2018.
“The smallest gestures can make the biggest impacts on people’s lives,” Ashleigh continued. “I’m going to pay it forward once I get home because I know of all the devastation that has happened there over the past week. Myrtle Beach needs some positivity.”
On that note, Ashleigh then reflected on the potential state of her apartment back in South Carolina, no doubt mirroring the feelings of her fellow evacuees. “I’m hoping for the best,” she said. “Fingers crossed we don’t have any issues. Since the trip was so last-minute, we really didn’t even pack.”
“We kind of just took all of the clean clothes we had and the necessities and hit the road,” Ashleigh added. The 21-year-old also confirmed that her family were safe, as Florence finally came to an end. However, that wouldn’t be the last major storm to hit the East Coast in the fall of 2018.
Indeed, Hurricane Michael made landfall in Chelsey’s home state on October 10, devastating the Mexico Beach county. It’s believed that winds reached over 150 mph, as the storm hit the Florida Panhandle. The problems didn’t end there, though, with a number of other states on red alert.
South Carolina was one of those states, along with North Carolina and Virginia. It was predicted that the storm would drop up to seven inches of rainfall in the Carolinas, before drifting into the Atlantic Ocean.
With that in mind, residents of those states might just find a note like that of Chelsey’s on their vehicles during this time. Indeed, given the response to her kind gesture, there may be people out there looking to pay it forward in a similar way after Hurricane Michael.
As Chelsey herself said during her correspondence with Ashleigh, “The thing that got me through [Hurricane Irma] was the kindness of everyone in and out of my state. Just knowing people really do care makes some things so devastating feel so small! A simple act of kindness can really turn someone’s day around.”