When Zackary Vaara’s bike was stolen from Safeway after his Oct. 23 graveyard shift, he “freaked out,” he said. After all, Vaara, who has worked as a bagger at the store for 13 years, depends on the bike as his sole means of transportation. Someone had cut the bike’s lock with bolt cutters and swiped it between midnight and 2 p.m., when Vaara went back to work to pick it up and found it gone.
Vaara’s mother, Melinda Dana, said finding out the bike was stolen “ruined my day.” Vaara had used his savings to purchase the bike, a silver Kona, seven months ago.
“When I got the call from the police, I immediately started making calls,” Dana said.
That’s when the story took a complete turn. Dana realized the police officer handling the case had already called every pawn shop in town making sure the bike wasn’t there, she said.
It was just the beginning of the good deeds that spawned from a bad situation, Dana said. KINY program “Problem Corner” announced Vaara’s bike was missing on Friday, she said. Immediately after, Erin Heywood, a longtime Safeway shopper who has known Vaara for years, called in to the show to challenge listeners to make donations to Vaara at Safeway so he could purchase a new bike.
“As soon as the show was over, I went down to the (Safeway) store director,” Heywood said. “He had already had three phone calls.”
This inspired Heywood to post the challenge in popular Facebook group “Juneau Buy Sell Trade.” She said the post blew up with people promising to donate.
People didn’t just give money, although Vaara did end up with $110, Dana said. Ron and Julie Flint, of Nugget Alaskan Outfitters, donated a reflective rain jacket. Others donated bike locks. And five people offered to donate bikes to Vaara. Samantha Adams went so far as to deliver a brand-new blue Schwinn to Safeway.
With two children and a childcare business to run, Adams shops at Safeway about once a week, she said. Vaara often bags her groceries.
“He’s just a very friendly guy,” she said. Donating the bike “just seemed like the right thing to do.”
It’s important to Adams that her children grow up in a community that supports one another, she said. So, when she saw the post in Juneau Buy Sell Trade, she thought it was a great opportunity to make a difference as well as show her children the value of kindness.
“It was important for my kids to see me being a good citizen,” she said. “It was a good talking point.”
Dana said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the Juneau community.
“The most wonderful, heartwarming part is the response Facebook has provided,” she said. “It shows just how good this community is.”
On Monday, when Vaara left his Valley apartment to meet his REACH caregiver downstairs and head to work sans-bike, he found a miraculous surprise. His silver Kona was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs.
Dana said she was overcome when Vaara called to let her know the bike was back. She said social networking as well as Vaara being a fixture in the community probably led to the thief changing his or her mind about keeping the bike.
“I can’t say I was surprised because there were so many people in town looking for the bike and that know Zackary,” she said. “People are really, really fond of Zackary.”
Adams said she believes that although social media is criticized for disengaging people with the outside world, the opposite is true.
“It’s actually become a very useful tool of being connected to your community,” Adams said. “There was enough of an impact on Facebook that the person felt compelled to return it.”
The huge response from concerned Juneauites online inspired Heywood to create a new Facebook group: “Juneau Pay It Forward.” This page connects people in need with those willing to help. Since it was created a few days ago, the group has gained about 397 members, as of Saturday evening.
A single mother recently contacted Heywood through the group, trying to start over after an unhealthy relationship and needing help finding home essentials, Heywood said. Heywood posted the woman’s request in Pay It Forward, and again received an overwhelming response.
“People were saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got some dishes, I’ve got a sofa,’” she said. “It took us two days to get the stuff for the lady’s house.”
Dana said she was proud to live in Juneau when she heard that Vaara’s situation had inspired someone to create an online space for people to help each other.
“When I heard about the Pay It Forward, I started to cry, which I’m doing now,” she said.
Even though Vaara and Dana were devastated when the bike was stolen, they now want to thank whoever took it for “having a change of heart.”
“I was happy that someone did the right thing,” Dana said. “A negative experience has turned into a completely positive one.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.