I had the best job in the world this December. I made 50 people laugh and then start to cry. Some looked at me as if I were crazy, while others hugged me tight. I was a "Mystery Shopper" in Montrose, population 13,000, in western Colorado, who "caught" people shopping in local stores and gave them $50 to spend as they wished. The fun was sponsored by the Montrose Chamber of Commerce, so the folks I chose had to spend the windfall in town.

Two older women, who were caressing plaid wool shirts and fingering leather hats, giggled when I presented the checks to them. A 7-year-old boy's eyes widened, and his mom gasped, when he received his reward for shopping locally. Now he could afford the electronic game that he wanted for his older sister.( I guessed of course, that he expected her to share with him.) We had nearly a foot of snow the day I caught two men buying jeans. Gustavo didn't speak English, but Tomo told him of their good fortune. He handed the checks to the clerk and said he was sure they would spend the limit right there.

Down the road, in the new shopping center (the first for my town), I was surprised to find that the shopper I caught was a former student. I didn't recognize her. It had been over 20 years since she'd been in my seventh grade English class. In the super-center next door, I found a family of five, the two youngest riding in the cart. They were looking for snow boots. The mom said the $50 made a big difference for them that day.

I met Bobby at the pet store. Dressed in camouflage and in a hurry to catch his plane, he stopped to find a travel cage for his dog. In his soft Tennessee accent, he apologized for not being able to be in town for the big drawing, where one of the 50 folks I surprised with $50 would win $1,000, if present that Saturday when the name would be drawn.

In the downtown bookstore, I caught the lady who volunteers at our Ute Indian Museum. That earned me a hug. Another great hug, accompanied by a few tears, came from a shopping-stressed woman in a popular gift and lunch venue. She said she had never won anything before in her life. I was glad to be able to end her luckless drought.

The best embrace of them all was the one I received from Betty. She had just sent the clerk back to the shelves with the beautiful stained glass vase she cherished, but could not afford. With checks in hand, Betty recalled the clerk, and the three of us had a great big hug.

During my two weeks as the Mystery Shopper I reconnected with former students who were clerks or customers, and caught up with what was happening in their lives. I gave families the chance to choose among their competing imperatives: groceries or shoes, toys or coats. I was the vessel for their opportunity, but I received way more than I gave. They shared their dreams, their love for others, their sacrifices, with me, a stranger to most of them. I had the best job in the world.

Carol McDermott is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She lives in Montrose, Colorado, and works as a freelance writer for several area newspapers.