Shannon Vargas spent 2019 serving pancakes with a smile by day and struggling to keep a roof over her family’s head by night.
The once homeless single mom, who is a server at the Original Pancake House in Oak Lawn, has begun 2020 with renewed hope that a much needed break has finally come her way.
Recently, a diner left Vargas a $2,020 tip on a $36.73 tab — a gratuity of nearly 5,500%.
“I poked my head around the corner and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Is this a joke?’ And she said, ‘No, it’s not a joke,’ ” Vargas said.
“Then I almost fell over,” she said.
The diner, a local woman who has asked to remain anonymous, said later she was suddenly inspired.
“About halfway through the meal, I felt a ‘shoulder tap’ or a nudge from God to do something,” she said. “I wasn’t planning on leaving her that tip, it just kind of happened after I got the feeling that she desperately needed some help that day.”
The woman also wrote a message on Vargas’ ticket: “Because everybody needs a little help sometimes.”
“I believe that there is truth in that. At some point, in all of our lives, we will need help. And there is absolutely no shame in that,” the donor said.
Just two weeks into the new year, the 2020 tip challenge, started in Alpena, Michigan, is becoming a trend, thanks mostly to Donnie Wahlberg and Jenny McCarthy, who added the sizable amount to their $78 check at a St. Charles IHOP on New Year’s Day.
Vargas, who is now living with her children at the Terrace Hotel in Oak Forest, said until a few years ago she was getting by, living in a camper in Joliet and working at the Oak Lawn Restaurant.
Then her father fell ill. She sold everything and headed to Alabama to take care of him.
“You just never know how long someone has to live,” she said.
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After he died, she and her children headed back north and Vargas has been trying to “get it all together ever since.
“It’s different living in a hotel,” she said. “You don’t have a full kitchen, you gotta work with a slow cooker. They finally gave me a microwave and a fridge.
“But it’s hard because you’re all on top of each other. It’s not fun but it’s a roof over our heads,” she said.
She spent many summer nights in a tent, pretending for her kids “that it was fun, that we were camping.”
Slowly, and quietly, says Julie Harrigan, director of operations at Original Pancake House, she has been trying to rebuild.
“I’ve come a long way from living in a tent,” Vargas said. “Now I’m trying to get an apartment.”
Kindness came knocking near closing time Jan. 13, when two women sat down and ordered Santa Fe omelettes.
It was around 2 when Vargas collected payment, in the form of a credit card wrapped in the ticket.
“The woman said, ‘I’m going to stay here and make sure the credit card goes through,’ ” Vargas said.
“I just kept thanking her, hugging her, kissing her. Bawling,” she said.
A typical tip, she said, is usually a few bucks, sometimes a $10 or a $20 bill if she’s serving a party.
“I was so blessed that day,” Vargas said. “It will help me find a place and everything.”
When her coworkers got wind of the generosity, they responded with even more kindness. Server Michele Strong set up Helping Hands For Shannon, a gofundme account, to further help Vargas.
Harrigan reiterated a popular sentiment that the public doesn’t always know what an individual is struggling to get through.
“We didn’t even know the depth of her need. Sometimes she doesn’t have a place to stay. She’s slept in a tent,” Harrigan said. “You’d never know, because of her persona. She never complains. She is so kind and yet she has this tremendous cross to bear.