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Laurie Houle, CEO of Metro Gravel in Newport, and her family participated in the 2012 St. Paul Park Heritage Days parade, but now use the annual event to dole out white envelopes promoting a pay-it-forward message. (Submitted photo)

Newport CEO carries on husband’s ‘generous’ legacy at Heritage Days

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A famous Greek storyteller once said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

Aesop’s centuries-old truth is the foundation on which Laurie Houle, CEO of Metro Gravel in Newport, has built her family and continues to run her family’s business. It’s also the message behind a series of white envelopes that made their way into the hands of several St. Paul Park Heritage Days festival-goers earlier this month.

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Houle and her two grandsons, Tanner Hohneke, 12, and Ryan Houle, 10, walked Broadway Avenue Aug. 16 after the parade filtered locals down to the city’s main thoroughfare. Houle said the distribution of envelopes was to carry on the legacy of her late husband, West Sr.

Some passersby declined the envelope, she said. But the ones who accepted it found inside a crisp $20 bill and an inspiring note asking the recipient to “do good things for others.”

“If you ever needed anything, (West) would find a way to give it to you,” the letter read. “Someday you may be able to help someone else out, pay it forward. Make someone else’s life easier and ask them to do the same.”

Whether it was buying breakfast for strangers at their favorite Hudson cafe, picking up the bill for someone behind them in a drive-thru or simply paying for someone’s fuel, Houle said West and her family were always looking to help.

In December 2009, West was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and died five months later.

“He had such a big personality,” Houle said of West. “He would begin his day with his employees, have coffee with them. And he would end his day with them as well. His death was hard on us, but it also had a big effect on the workers here.”

After his death in 2010, the family started distributing the envelopes each year in West’s honor.

“We handed them out when we were in the parade but people started coming up to us and were saying, ‘You’re the people with the envelopes, I know what’s in there,’” Houle said. “We wanted to make sure these were going to people that either really needed the help or really wanted to help others. We wanted to pick and choose.”

This year, the Houle family passed out 50 envelopes, each with $20 and the letter. At the bottom, Houle asked recipients to email her and share how the money was used. So far, Houle’s daughter, Jennifer Hohneke, said the return investment was well worth it.

“There’s an email from a woman who helped her daughter’s friend buy a prom dress who couldn’t afford it, someone else doubled it and donated back to the American Red Cross,” Hohneke said. “Another donated their money to Autism Speaks. Here’s an email from someone who gave it to a homeless woman so she could eat that day.”

Still another email came from a family in Eden Prairie who bought a restaurant patron lunch.

“This is what we wanted,” Houle said. “It’s neat to see just how far-reaching this can be.”

And the family’s giving doesn’t stop with the white envelopes. Houle said West was never one to turn away from someone in need.

“West was such a generous, giving man,” she said. “And we don’t do this for the recognition. We do this because this is who West was. And it’s always a great day to pay it forward.”

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