Real estate agent Rina Liou realized she had a problem as soon as she reached into her purse for her wallet at a Houston Walgreens this month.

She had stopped at the store to buy lightbulbs for an open house that would start in less than 30 minutes, but she had left her wallet at home.

“I couldn’t figure out how to use Apple Pay to pay for them, and I was pretty flustered,” said Liou, 35. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Liou, feeling a bit of panic, wondered how potential buyers would react when they couldn’t turn on the lights at the townhouse she was showing on that day, Sept. 7, she said. But then Walgreens checker Rita Jackson Burns spoke up:

“I’m a little short on funds because I only have $20 in my checking account, but I’ll go ahead and pay for this for you,” Liou recalled her saying.

Then Burns pulled out her personal debit card.

When she rang up the lightbulbs, Burns said she was relieved to see that they were on sale, costing $12.41.

“I was a little embarrassed that I only had $20 in the bank because I’d just paid my bills,” Burns recalled.

But she offered to pay, because Liou really looked as if she needed a hand.

“I wanted to help, because I know that if I were in a bind, I’d hope that somebody else would do the same,” Burns said.

Liou thanked Burns profusely and told her that she’d return later that afternoon to pay her back. She kept that promise.

“She gave me $15, plus $30 extra, and told me to put it in my bank account,” said Burns, 58. “She was so generous, I wanted to cry.”

Liou said it was Burns who was the generous one, as she was willing to drain her small bank account to help a stranger.

“Rita saved me that day,” Liou said. “It was the least I could do. I didn’t feel guilty about borrowing her money, because I knew that I was going to pay her back. But she didn’t know that. I was touched that she didn’t hesitate to help me.”

A few days later, Liou decided to take her gratitude one step further: She posted about her experience on her neighborhood’s Nextdoor page, and dozens of people chimed in, wondering how they could show their appreciation for Burns. Then Houston’s KHOU-11 television learned about Burns’s kind deed, and things really took off.

Burns has worked at the Walgreens on Stella Link Road for 38 years and knows all of the regular customers, she said. Many of those people, including Michelle Suh, wanted to recognize her decades of service behind the cash register.

Suh decided to organize a GoFundMe campaign called “Gratitude for Ms. Rita” to reward Burns’s contributions as an essential worker during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Ms. Rita is a neighbor in the truest sense of the word,” Suh wrote. “Until Walgreens and our country pays our essential workers more, let’s step up to make sure Ms. Rita has more than $20 in her account.

“She has given us so much kindness, and we would love to show her how much she means to us,” Suh added.

The fundraiser has reached more than $11,000, and thankful customers have left dozens of comments.

“Ms. Rita, your smile and kind words greeted us every time we walked into the store,” wrote Sandi Mercado, who donated $25. “On a bad day, you made us forget our troubles for a few minutes. On a good day, you shared in our laughter.”

Burns had helped her out more than once over the years, when she came up a dollar or two short at the checkout, Mercado added.

“You always told me you’d take care of it and to swing by and pay it back whenever I could,” she wrote. “If you ever wondered if people notice your kindness … they do. We do.”

“Ms. Rita sold me the pregnancy test at Walgreens that I used to find out I was pregnant with my daughter,” wrote Allison Longoria, who chipped in $25. “She is 19 now! Lovely woman!”

“Ms. Rita, I have not met you (although I would like and plan to), but the world needs more kind people like you,” added Emilie Mavligit, who donated $10.

Burns said she is stunned by the generosity.

“My customers tell me they love me all the time, and I love them, too,” she said. “But this is just incredible. I’m so very grateful.”

Burns said she is the main provider for her husband, Robert Burns, a retired steel cutter, and their adult son, Jarrell.

“I’m going to save some of the money for a rainy day, but I’d like to donate a portion of it to help children in some way and show them what can happen if you help others,” she said.

She paused and laughed. “I don’t need any lightbulbs.”

As for Liou, she said there is no question where she now plans to do her shopping.

“I’ve talked to Rita quite a bit since this happened, and I’ve learned that more than anything, she enjoys the connection with her customers,” Liou said. “That’s what fuels her to go in to work each morning — to see if she can brighten somebody’s day.

“She works from the heart,” Liou added. “I’m happy to know her.”

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