A stranger’s generosity changed Audrey Gaspard’s life. Now she helps families find money for college at La Sierra University.
The young girl had come by the Jamaican guest house to help out her aunt, the housekeeper. It was May of 1965, a hot time of year, not exactly prime time for tourists. By chance, she met Elinore Standard, an American honeymooning there with her new husband, Michael.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Elinore asked Audrey.
“I want to be a teacher,” Audrey replied. “I want to make sure every kid has a chance to study and go to high school.” But that was not going to be possible for her. After July, when she finished elementary school, she did not know what her future held. Her family was too poor to pay for test preparation tutoring that would help her pass the public high school entrance exam, and private school was financially out of the question.
Something about the 14-year-old stayed with Elinore after she and Michael flew home to New York. Acting on impulse, she sent a letter to the girl’s aunt. Would it be all right, Elinore wrote, if she and Michael paid Audrey’s way through a private high school? Audrey got the amazing news first, because her aunt could not read. Audrey had to read the letter to her. “I read the lines over and over,” she recalls. “I could not believe it could possibly be true.” Her mother at first thought it was a joke.
The next day Audrey and her mother headed into Montego Bay, a major city 10 miles from their home, to visit schools. Audrey chose Harrison Memorial High School, run by the Adventist Church, even though at the time she and her family were not members of that denomination. The Standards kept their promise of support. “For the next five years, the money came for my tuition, books, and uniforms, including new shoes,” Audrey says. “That was something I had never owned before in my life!”
Searching for Elinore
Fast forward 38 years. Audrey had joined the Adventist Church, married, had two daughters, and emigrated to Southern California where she went to work at La Sierra University. She earned a bachelor’s degree at age 48, and at 50 completed the MBA. She became assistant director of financial aid, helping students find the resources to get a La Sierra University education.
Over the years Audrey had tried many times to find the couple whose generosity had changed her life, but without success. Then, on September 4, 2008, she found a lead. A woman by the name of Elinore Standard had coedited an anthology with a university professor in Texas. Audrey found contact information for the professor and sent a polite email:
“I have been searching to find Elinore Standard for some time and just came upon Bookworms: Great Readers and Writers Celebrate Reading. I hope this is the same Elinore Standard I have known….Elinore made it possible for me to have attended high school. Without her help, I don’t know what would have become of my educational path. I lost contact with her in 1970….I would greatly appreciate your assistance in helping me to connect with her.”
Three days later, Audrey got a positive response. “Dear Ms. Gaspard, Elinore Standard would be happy to hear from you. Her email address is….”
That night, after she finished work, Audrey wrote the message she’d waited decades to send:
“Are you the Elinore Standard who visited Jamaica in 1965 and stayed at the Binns’ guest house? I truly hope you are! …I feel nervous, just don’t know what to really say, but I can say, ‘because of your generous help putting me through high school, I am who I am today.’ I think about you almost every day….You must have been my angel sent by God. You have no idea what it meant for me to have been granted the opportunity to go beyond elementary school.”
Less than seven hours later the connection came full circle. “Dear Little Patsy!” wrote Elinore, using the name Audrey’s Jamaican family called her as a child. “My goodness, what an amazing world! But this is what people do: they find each other, they connect, they ‘pay it forward!’ Bless you for searching.”
Little did Elinore know when she answered that first email how important Audrey would become in her life. Just a few months later, Elinore got alarming news. Michael, her husband of 43 years, was facing a serious illness. A prominent New York attorney, he had argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now he would have to face a harder battle, one of a more personal nature. She had been Audrey’s angel. Now it was Audrey’s turn to reciprocate with gifts of fruit, flowers, and unflagging emotional support.
Audrey “entered my life at a time when I had no family except my husband, my son, and his family,” says Elinore on a summer afternoon at her home, which is now in Vermont. Michael is reading on the patio where, on a clear day, they can see the Adirondack Mountains. “She came with the most amazing outpouring of generosity and support and love. In my old age, I have the comfort of someone who is beyond just a friend. She is really family. I feel blessed.”
Though Elinore and Audrey live on opposite sides of the continent and have only met in person about six times, they email almost every day and talk on the phone frequently. “We are very close,” says Elinore, adding, “I don’t know what I would do without her. She is a very important person in my life.”
Each school year, Audrey continues to repay in the lives of La Sierra students what Elinore did for her. She has such a heart for students and their families, along with vast experience navigating the world of college funding, that she’s become known on campus as someone who finds “hidden sources” of financial aid.
“I don’t miss a graduation,” she adds. Then, more than at any other time, she can delight in the cheers of families as they watch their sons and daughters receive degrees that might not have seemed possible without her help.
“It’s hard work. We work long hours,” she says. “But I look at it every day as ‘paying it forward.’ It’s how I repay the Standards for my education. It is my greatest joy.”