He’s become known as the "penny man," the older gentleman most often seen at the Hartland Meijer handing out pennies to parents with young children wanting a penny pony ride.
Tom Dunaj, 74, of Hartland has become a familiar and welcoming sight for many of the young children who visit the store with their parents, some even running to greet the local grandfather and receive their free penny.
“It’s wonderful,” Hartland mom Jennifer Ancheta said. “You have a crabby toddler who’s throwing a fit and the moms are frazzled and then in walks this angel with a penny.”
The Meijer pony rides began many years ago for Dunaj who says he used to enjoy taking his young granddaughter there and letting her ride. Now that she is older however, and too big for pony rides, Dunaj says he continues the tradition just to see the children smile.
“It makes my day,” he said.
For five years, Dunaj has spent countless hours of his free time spreading smiles one penny at a time. His wife, Pat, says she has no idea how many pennies her husband has given away over the years but jokes that she use to have a small collection.
“They use to add up,” she laughed, “but they don’t do that anymore.”
Local Moms present 'Penny Man' with homemade penny jar
The actions of the “penny man” have not gone unnoticed within the community of Hartland as a group of moms recently came to together to thank Dunaj for his kindness.
Making a homemade penny jar, complete with a thank you note and homemade hat and scarf, several of the moms presented the gift as a token of the appreciation.
It was a heartfelt moment for the older couple as they thanked the women for their unexpected gift.
“I think Tom does this because he misses our son who was killed when he was 14,” Pat Dunaj said through tears. “It’s something that never goes away.”
Showing his gracious spirit that is becoming his trademark, Dunaj passed around hugs as well as pennies, careful not to miss anyone in the small group, as he explained it was also his simple love of children that motivates him.
The grandfather also explained that he is aware of the lessons of “stranger danger,” that parents try to teach their children, which is why he is careful to approach adults rather than the kids. For the most part, however, Dunaj said the reactions of people he approaches are positive.
For Hartland mom Amy Roach, however, there is a much more valuble lesson children should learn from the actions of the "penny man" that include kindness, generosity and the simple act of caring for others.
“My son said he has a big heart because most people don’t give money away,” Roach said with a smile.
There is also a lesson for adults, according to Hartland mom Jenifer Thomas, that a random act of kindness can help change someone's day and is a reminder to “pay it forward."
“You spread the smiles around,” Thomas said. “The kids smile, the moms smile… it changes our mood and then we pass it on. A penny costs nothing to smile and make someone's day and we need to do more of that.”