The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She won the lottery. Then she shared her windfall with strangers.

Crystal Dunn was determined to pay it forward, she said, “because I know what it’s like to struggle.”

On July 7, Crystal Dunn of Louisville, Ky., won the Kentucky Lottery, earning $146,351.74. After depositing her check, she shared her windfall with strangers at a local supermarket. (Courtesy of Kentucky Lottery)

Crystal Dunn knew the odds of winning the Lottery jackpot were one in 250,000.

But as Dunn sat in her Louisville, Ky., home on the evening of July 7, she kept one eye on the television show she was watching and the other on the computer. She had half-heartedly wagered $20 in a Kentucky Lottery online game — the Bank Buster Jackpot Instant Play — which she does for fun from time to time.

Moments after placing her bet, an unexpected message appeared on Dunn’s computer screen: “JACKPOT WINNER! $146,351.74.”

“No way, no way!” Dunn, 42, a single mother of three sons, recalled hollering to her kids. “That’s not possible.”

She went to the Kentucky Lottery office the next morning to collect her winnings. As she drove home with her check — $103,909.73 after taxes — “I was thinking about the first thing I want to do with it.”

Before considering how she would spend the windfall on herself or her family, Dunn said, “I thought, I want to share this with others in some way.”

“I just received this amazing gift, and I wanted to share that,” she decided.

She stopped at her local Meijer grocery store and purchased 20 $100 gift cards and then proceeded to hand them out to random shoppers in the store — none of whom she knew. The 20 lucky recipients were stunned by the surprising gesture.

“A lot of people were in disbelief,” said Dunn, adding that many of the strangers asked to give her a hug.

Before handing them out to shoppers, she asked store managers if it was all right. “They all helped me,” Dunn said of the store employees.

Dunn was determined to pay it forward, she said, “because I know what it’s like to struggle.”

“I had a very hard childhood,” explained Dunn, who, from the age of 9, moved from foster home to foster home. She ran away at 16 and has taken care of herself since.

“I went through a lot of things that kids should never go through,” she said, adding, “I have gone without many things.”

Despite her difficult upbringing, Dunn was determined to pave a better path forward. She put herself through college and found a stable job at the same health insurance company where she still works today.

“No matter what life you have, you do have a choice, and you can make decisions to make it better and to make a positive impact on others’ lives,” she said. “You just have to push forward.”

Dunn said she is proud of the life she has built for herself — and she hopes her story will uplift others, especially children, who find themselves in similar challenging circumstances.

“When I won the money, in a way I wished it was someone else, because I do okay. I can take care of myself,” Dunn said. “I never expected this in my wildest dreams to happen, nor did I expect to be all over the news.”

In fact, Dunn initially declined interview requests from journalists.

“My first thought was to turn them down,” she said. “Then, I got to thinking about why this news spread.”

Dunn realized that she was presented with a rare opportunity to send out some positivity.

“The news is filled with stories of people doing horrible things to one another, and this causes us all to lose hope," she said.

Staff at Kentucky Lottery said they were touched by Dunn’s decision to share a portion of her pay-out with strangers.

“It wasn’t like she won millions of dollars,” said Chip Polston, the senior vice president of communications for Kentucky Lottery. “She had the foresight to take $2,000 and just go make the day of 20 random people in this grocery store.”

For most lottery winners, Polston said, “it’s really not the material things that have brought them the most joy, it’s what they were able to do for other people.”

That’s true for Dunn, who said she will use the remaining funds for things she was already saving up for, such as a new car, and perhaps some home improvements. She estimates her actual payout will be about $75,000 once further taxes are taken out.

What will always resonate with her most about her win, she said, is that she shared a little bit of her luck.

“I believe in trying to help others," she said.

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