Noelia Amaya was sorting through the latest batch of donations to the Cancer Awareness Thrift Store in Bluffton when a purse caught her eye. As a longtime volunteer and more recently a paid employee, Nelly had seen her fair share of items come through, but never one like this: it contained $1,800 in cash.
"I thought the purse was cute, so I opened it up, and that's when I realized there was money inside," said Nelly, who is originally from Mexico's capital city.
The first thing that crossed her mind was a cancer patient who used to come to the store for help. He carried a respiratory mask and pulled an oxygen tank behind him, until his death several weeks ago.
"I don't know why he came to my mind at that moment," Nelly said. "My next thought was: 'This money has to go to Karin.'"
She turned the purse in to Karin Matthews, the store owner, who was able to locate the person who donated the purse and return the money. Never did it occur to Nelly to pocket her find, and her honesty was acknowledged when the rightful owner gave her $100. But to Nelly, the greatest rewards have always been intangible.
"My parents' greatest ambition was to teach my brothers and sisters and me to be honest, and to feel good about being honest," said Nelly, who grew up with nine siblings. "They were very noble, always thinking of others, and it's their example that sticks with me."
Nelly came to the United States in 1991, living first in Houston then migrating to the Lowcountry in 2000. Now she lives in Bluffton and manages the Cancer Awareness store at its new location in the old Piggly Wiggly building. Although she's now on the payroll, she continues to donate additional time in accordance with the helpful spirit that first inspired her to volunteer there six years ago.
The person who got her lost money back may have considered it a small miracle, a concept Nelly is familiar with.
"For me, a miracle is when God gives us an opportunity because we have asked Him for something with all our hearts," she explained. From there she proceeded to relate an experience that, 14 years later, still overwhelms her with emotion:
"I suffered a very serious pelvic injury that forced me to stay in bed, unable to walk for a month. After that, I couldn't have children. I wanted a son or daughter so badly, and I prayed to God, asking if He thought I was prepared to have a family, and if so, could He give me the possibility of having a child. But only if it was His will. I think God heard me, because my sister-in-law's cousin gave birth to a daughter that she didn't want to raise, so she gave me the baby."
Fourteen-year-old Perla Melendez has been in Nelly's care since she was one month old, a living incarnation of "Ask and Ye Shall Receive."
"She is my daughter, my reason to live," said Nelly. "I will always be with her in spite of any difficulties. For me, it was a miracle."
Hometown: Mexico City Hobbies: sports and riding her bike, including to work Fondest memory from childhood: being from a large family and attending family reunions with 200+ people Favorite thing about Bluffton: the peaceful tranquility, where even if you forget to lock your door, most likely nothing will happen Favorite holiday tradition: going to church with her Mom; according to Mexican custom, they would bring a doll representing Baby Jesus and rock him to sleep in their reboso, a woven shawl. On Karin Matthews: "She is an excellent person and I admire her very much, because it is an exhausting job to work with cancer patients, some of whom get well, and others who, unfortunately, pass away." Message to readers: "Donate time whenever you can, because it takes many good hearts and many willing hands to help out."