An Uber ride usually earns driver Ellis Hill less than $20, but one fateful pickup has given the Philadelphia father a life-changing plane ticket.
Soon after Liz Willock got into the back of Hill’s car, their conversation touched on the Rio Olympic Games, with Willock mentioning that she knew someone competing there.
As it turns out, so did Hill: his own son.
Hill beamed into the rear-view mirror as he told Willock that his son, Darrell, would be competing in the shot put event for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team on August 18.
Hill, a retired bus driver who drives an Uber to make ends meet, had resigned himself to watching his son compete on television from his living room.
But his passenger, so moved by this father’s story, had other ideas.
“I don’t think he ever thought it was in reach. He had just accepted that he wasn’t going to be able to afford it,” Willock told CNN.
So Willock exited the car with a vow to get him to Brazil.
First, Willock tried to use frequent flyer miles before turning to GoFundMe.com and setting up a campaign page.
The site, which crowdsources donations for everything from business ideas to medical treatments, is now brimming with the plights of Olympic athletes and their families.
Over the course of just a week, donations flooded in from 152 people, totaling $8,200 — $700 more than the original goal of $7,500. Most of those who donated were strangers, says Hill, simply moved by his story.
“When I went to bed that night, it was at $1,300. When I woke up, it was at $4,045,” Hill told CBC.
After leaving church that morning, he received a call that would change his life.
“I got a phone call from a TV station and they said, ‘So Ellis, how do you feel?’ And I said, ‘What?’ They said, ‘You passed the goal!'”
Willock, who works for a company that plans worldwide travel for medical patients in search of new clinical trials, told CNN she believes there is a reason she missed her flight that day and ended up getting in to Hill’s Uber.
“Someone was watching out for us. The stars just aligned,” she said.
But Willock isn’t the only generous figure in Ellis Hill’s story. Darrell’s teammate, reigning shot put world champion Joe Kovacs, arranged for Ellis to get a spare hotel room in Rio, booked and paid for by Kovac’s own family.
Ellis Hill will head to Rio on August 15, just in time to catch his son compete a few days later.
Darrell has already secured his dad tickets to his shot put event.
Hill told CBC he’s hopeful his presence will push his son to a podium finish.
“I hope this means that my son will come home with a medal because, frankly, he’s going to give it all he has,” Hill said.