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Pennies from Hoag: Janitor Comes Up with an Inspiring Idea

By Orange County Register

Categories: Featured News
January 5, 2021

A hospital janitor inspired people who might never have noticed him.

Phillip Ingram’s job is to make sure the meeting rooms are clean at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. He walks the halls smiling at people who have no idea that he’s the guy who came up with the inspiring idea.

Ingram is a smiler.

They have no idea he was raised without a father and had a rough life on the streets of Monessen, Pennsylvania, a fading steel town that once had more than 20,000 residents, but now has fewer than 8,000. (The town’s claim to fame is that it was the high school home of Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand.) They have no idea about the grandmother who inspired him, the single mother who raised him or the brother who helped him come up with the idea.

They have no idea about the size of his heart.

Check out what Jan Blue, Hoag’s senior vice president and chief administrative officer, said about Ingram.

“Seriously, I aspire to have a heart as caring as his and his drive to help others as deeply as he does,” Blue said. “The world needs many more Phil Ingrams – especially now. What a huge heart he has; a humble heart who just wants to ease the path of others through acts of kindness and generosity.”

She noticed.

Several years ago, Phillip Ingram, 38, and his brother Aaron came up with a fundraising idea. What if you collected one penny from millions of people? You could donate that money and make a difference in the lives of people who really need the help.

The pennies idea never really launched. But it changed over the years. And in December, a better, bigger version of that idea became a reality at Hoag Hospital.

Tough times

It’s a little more than 20 miles from Pittsburgh to Monessen. Steel was once the lifeblood of the town, but Monessen residents have come to the realization that the steel industry isn’t coming back.

Ingram said he grew up with little hope.

“I don’t even know if I had a dream,” he said. “It wasn’t a positive environment. I grew up in the crack era. You just had to get through day to day.”

His father didn’t live at home. But Ingram would see him around town.

“He was a drug addict,” Ingram said. “He was in the streets.”

His mom, Roni, worked several retail jobs, and Ingram had to watch over his younger brothers, Aaron and Dejuan. Times were tough.

“We would have to hurry up and move sometimes because we got evicted,” Ingram said. “Sometimes, we had dinner, but not enough. You worry about eating more than you worry about anything else.

“The only people we knew who had money were people selling drugs.”

Ingram remembers a day when he was in high school when a man from the neighborhood showed up at their home with a donation of clothes for him and his brothers.

“They weren’t the nicest clothes,” Ingram said. “But we were hugging like we won the championship. It felt like Christmas.”

He never forgot that feeling.

‘I just woke up’

Phillip Ingram went to West Virginia University, but he couldn’t afford to finish. He ended up back in Monessen.

“I was never a stupid kid,” he said. “Sometimes, I was a bad kid, but never stupid.”

As a young adult, Phillip Ingram knew he wasn’t making the right decisions.

Quietly, he started selling drugs, he said. He never got arrested. Never got involved in violence. He needed the money.

Then, he had a crisis of conscience. He said he was coaching a youth basketball team when he began to worry what his players would think if he got caught selling drugs.

So he stopped.

“I guess I just woke up,” he said.

He knew he needed to get out of Monessen.

In the fall of 2014, Ingram came to Southern California to visit a couple of friends.

“It was November, and I was outside playing basketball,” he said.

Even though it was just a visit, Ingram never left. He bought an air mattress and stayed with friends until he could get his own place.

In January 2015, he got a job at Hoag.

He now has a Newport Beach apartment, a roommate and a good idea.

“When you know what it’s like to be hungry, you want to help,” he said.

‘It’s moving fast’

In 2018, Aaron called.

“He said, ‘I’ve got this idea. It’s called Powerful Pennies. What if we collected one penny a month from millions of people?’” Ingram said.

The problem was … how do you collect pennies from people.

Then, “I was lying in bed, and it hit me,” Ingram said. “I work at a place where there’s a lot of people.”

Hoag has about 6,500 employees at facilities in Irvine, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. His plan was to get word to all employees asking for 50 cents from their paychecks. He would donate the money.

In 2019, he wrote a letter to Hoag management. “To whom it may concern …”

But then he began to doubt himself. Why would anyone listen to a janitor?

He never showed the letter to anyone.

Until 2020.

First, a few friends at Hoag heard about Ingram’s idea, which he was calling “Powerful Pennies.” Then it got to Jan Blue.

“I immediately loved Phil’s idea because I could tell it came from the heart, and that he clearly felt very passionately about it,” Blue said. “The beauty of ‘Powerful Pennies’ is that it gives all Hoag employees an opportunity to contribute, regardless of their income level. They can either donate the change in their purse or pocket or, as Phil put it, ’50 cents per pay period.’

“While the requested amount is modest, the program has the potential to generate an impressive amount of money that can be used to help people in our community. Right now, during the pandemic, Hoag employees really want to make a difference and contribute in some meaningful way beyond what they are doing in caring for our patients. Phil’s inspired idea let’s all of us do so together.”

In the first week of December, Hoag started four collection sites where employees could donate coins.

In the first week, they collected about $1,000.

Then, Hoag gave every employee the opportunity to contribute between 50 cents and $5 every paycheck.

The payroll donations will start in January. So far, about 300 employees have signed up to donate.

“It’s moving fast,” Ingram said with a wide smile.

He plans to donate the money to the Boys and Girls Club of Huntington Valley (in Fountain Valley) and the YMCA of Orange County.

Now, people are starting to recognize him in the hallway.

He’s the janitor with the good idea. He said a woman stopped him the other day and said, “I wasn’t surprised it was you.”

“Every day is a good day,” Ingram said. “A lot of people are doing worse than me. When I’m helping other people it’s when I feel most alive.”

Does he have a goal?

“I don’t have a number goal,” Ingram said. “But I know it’s going to be a lot more than I can give myself. Hopefully, this program survives longer than I do.”

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Photo credit Orange County Register, Leonard Ortiz.