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School staff saw a custodian was walking to work. They pitched in and bought him a car.

Unity Grove Elementary School teachers Megan MacDonald, left, and Jodi Combs, right, with custodian Chris Jackson, center, after raising money to buy him a used car. (Erin Pringle)

For nearly a year, Chris Jackson walked about two miles each way to his school custodial job at Unity Grove Elementary in Locust Grove, Ga., on days when a friend couldn’t give him a ride.

Jackson, 33, said he saved what he could from each of his paychecks, hoping he would soon have enough cash for a decent used car.

But over the summer, his arrangement with a friend didn’t work out, and he had to move out of the home where he had been living. With nowhere to go, he moved into a motel while he looked for a place he could afford.

“When you hit hard times, sometimes it’s easy to give up faith, but I knew I had to keep trying,” said Jackson. “That’s what I always tell the kids at school, and it’s advice I’ve always tried to follow.”

Jackson, who now rents a room from another friend, said he didn’t tell many people about the financial challenges he faced after moving to Georgia from North Carolina last year and accepting a job on the custodial staff at Unity Grove.

But several teachers said they sensed something was wrong when they learned that Jackson was living in a motel and noticed that he was walking to work in hot or rainy weather, said special education teacher Jodi Combs.

Combs heads up the school’s Sunshine Committee — a volunteer group that does good things for Unity Grove’s 90 employees.

“We raised some funds right away to take care of Chris’s immediate needs, but when we learned he was trying to save up for a car, we set some of the donations aside, thinking we could help him out and maybe pay for tags and insurance,” said Combs, 44.

She and other teachers then looked online for reliable used cars.

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When first-grade teacher Megan MacDonald heard about a good deal on a 2005 Chevrolet Impala in mid-August, she said she quickly texted Combs: “Let’s make this happen for Chris.”

She and Combs put a plan into action: They posted a notice on a private Facebook page for the school’s teachers, asking anyone who could to pitch in toward purchasing the $2,500 vehicle.

Within an hour, said MacDonald, they had enough donations to buy the car, plus cover the license plates and a few months of insurance with the money they had previously set aside.

“It was a grass-roots effort, and it was really heartwarming to see everyone come forward so quickly to make Chris’s dream happen,” she said.

“Everyone at school thinks highly of Chris — there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for any of us when we need help in the classroom or cafeteria,” added MacDonald, 44.

School principal Anne Wilson echoed that sentiment.

“Chris is very personable, but he’s also very private, and we didn’t know he had a need for quite a long time,” she said. “But once we knew, everyone wanted to help.”

“The fact that Chris works hard and has been trying to save money for a car on his own speaks highly of his character,” added Wilson. “He’s a humble guy with a strong work ethic.”

On Aug. 16, the morning after she used everyone’s donations to purchase the Impala, Combs drove it to school and parked it in the teachers’ lot. Then she told Jackson that she needed help lifting something heavy from her car.

MacDonald was waiting in the lot with another teacher, who filmed Jackson’s reaction when Combs stopped instead in front of the Impala and handed him the car keys.

“I thought, ‘What? This is for me?’ ” Jackson recalled.

A video posted that day on the school’s Facebook page shows him raising his arms to the sky in thanks.

Today was one of those days that makes you smile for hours. Through the generosity of our staff, we have been able to bless our head custodian Mr. Chris in his time of need. In the past few months, Ms Combs and Ms MacDonald have orchestrated collection for funds to help him find housing and utility payments. Thanks to a wonderful Jackson friend, today the staff gifted Chris A CAR so he no longer has to walk to work! Little did we know, it was his favorite type of car, and he was stunned to know that it was HIS! Unity Grove is a special place, and we are so grateful for the people who are in our lives. #unitymakesusgreat

Posted by Unity Grove Elementary on Monday, August 16, 2021

“Oh, my stars, there is a God. I never could have dreamed of something like this. Thank you all!” Jackson said. The video has been viewed more than 2 million times and has racked up nearly 75,000 likes.

Jackson said he was stunned by the response, and the attention, both local and national.

“When somebody in my family called and said a TV story was going viral, I could hardly believe it,” he said. “But I’m happy it touched so many people.”

Jackson moved to Locust Grove, about 36 miles from Atlanta, late last fall, he said, eager for a fresh start after spending most of his life in Greensboro, N.C.

“I was looking for new opportunity and a new mind-set, and I applied for this job because I had some custodial experience,” he said. “I was really excited when they told me I was hired.”

Never mind that he didn’t own a car. He would walk to work every day, he decided.

“Pretty soon, some of the other custodians started giving me rides, and on days when they couldn’t, it was a one-hour walk, but I was happy to do it,” said Jackson.

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Several months after he started, he worked his way up to become the school’s head custodian — a year-round job, including summer, he said.

“I come in at 11 when the kids start lunch, then go home at 7:30 when the after-school program is over,” said Jackson. “There’s a lot to do: Dusting, mopping floors, cleaning all the bathrooms and the gym and cafeteria.”

Custodians are essential workers, especially during a pandemic, he added.

“I’ve always had a lot of respect for custodians, ever since I watched them working when I was a school kid,” he said. “What we do is important.”

Most of all, Jackson said he has appreciated getting to know the children at Unity Grove Elementary.

“We have secret handshakes, and they’ll come up and give me hugs,” he said. “I feel a little bit like a role model. I always try to encourage them and let them know they’re in a safe environment. And if somebody opens up that they’re having a problem of any kind, I’ll alert the staff.”

“I understand what it’s like to have a bad day and not have anything in your pocket,” Jackson added. “I know I’ve been there.”

When he learned that almost everyone at the school had chipped in to buy him a car, he felt like crying, he said.

“I didn’t want to put my burdens on no one else, and look what they did for me,” he said.

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