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Philanthropy Shining Lights

The Big Give

Christina Darnell

Before Branden and Ashley Stathes got engaged, they began asking difficult but necessary questions. They both graduated from college in 2009 and were living and working in Texas, and they wanted to establish that their vision and values were compatible.

Ashley remembers sitting together in a coffee shop when Branden first asked about her finances. Ashley brought up student loans, and that a significant amount of her money went toward those payments. When he asked how much she had, she admitted she had no idea—just that it was a lot.

It turns out, Ashley still had about $62,000 in student loans from her undergraduate studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Fear was Branden’s initial response. “How are we going to live with that payment?” he remembers thinking. He was making a modest ministry salary at University of Texas Young Life, and he thought he may need to change jobs. “All that stuff went through my head—it was very real.”

Still, they committed together to attack the debt and married in 2011. Branden stayed with Young Life, and they decided to live off his salary while throwing all of Ashley’s income toward loan payments.

In Austin, they had a strong group of friends and a supportive church. But even their strong community pushed back on Branden and Ashley’s method of paying down debt. “There were a lot of questions,” Branden recalls. “A lot of, do you really need to go at it this hard?”

Chris Kopacek was one of those friends. He tried to convince Branden to rethink their strategy. “My business mind was like, if you can find a better investment, it’s okay to leave some of that debt and invest in a higher interest rate-accruing account,” Chris said.

But Branden and Ashley were determined. It was a difficult journey, one that often left the couple weary and lonely. Their monthly food budget was $200; their eating out budget was $30. Movies and happy hours were out of the question. Ashley started a side gig as a photographer, they house sat, rented out their house on Airbnb, dog sat—everything they could to earn extra cash to put toward their debt.

“One night, I was talking to Ashley on the phone and I could just hear it,” said Lucy Lawson, another close friend who knew the couple through Young Life.

Lucy wanted to help. And if she wanted to help them, and she figured she wasn’t the only one. She began brainstorming a way to rally their friends to help ease their financial burdens.

In February 2013, she shot off an email to everyone she could think of from Branden and Ashley’s community and their Young Life students. “I would love to bless the Stathes,” she wrote. “I would love for them to receive an anonymous sum of money to help pay off the last part of their loans. If you would please pray and think about if you would like to join in this effort to bless them.”

The response was significant, though the contributions varied. Lucy says people gave anywhere from $10 to $250. One girl was only able to give $8. But together, they were able to amass enough to pay off the remainder of the loans.

Chris, Lucy and their close friends hosted a party with everyone who had given money so they could surprise Branden and Ashley with the check.

That night, Branden and Ashley thought Chris was taking them out to a nice restaurant, but he took a detour to Lucy’s house “to pick up some t-shirts.” He turned off the car and waved them inside and through the house onto the back patio where they were greeted by people they knew from all around town.

People took to the mic to share how they had been blessed by Ashley and Branden. By the time Lucy had the mic, Ashley and Branden, who were seated next to each other on white rocking chairs, were encouraged but confused. Lucy began commending them in their journey to pay off debt.

“So over the last few weeks, we’ve been putting together a lump sum of money, because we want you to know that Jesus has set you free in hundreds of ways, and we want to be that picture to you guys—we want you to know that right now, you’re debt free,” Lucy said.

Ashley and Branden both broke down in tears as Chris handed them a giant “check” made out of a broken down moving box.

What their friends didn’t know as they handed the check over was that Ashley had taken a pregnancy test the weekend before, and it was positive.

One of the hardest parts of their journey to pay off debt had been waiting to start a family. Ashley had wanted to try for children right away once they got married, but the couple questioned the wisdom of bringing a baby into their current financial situation and chose to wait.

“We also wanted to live out something we wanted to teach our kids—that it’s not good to be slave to the lender,” Branden said. He wanted to be able to tell his kids “before you were born, we wanted to slay it.”

But God had other plans—and His own way. Ashley said watching God provide for them through their community helped lay a foundation for her faith that God is trustworthy, He knows their needs, and He wants them to dream big.

Seven years later, Branden and Ashley continue to live off one salary, so Ashley is able to stay home with their four kids. They have paid for their cars and other big purchases in cash and refuse to go into debt for anything other than a mortgage. “It has taught us so much patience and diligence,” Ashley said.

She also said they’ve gotten to pay it forward by giving generously to friends who were attacking their own debt.

“It’s almost like God wasn’t concerned with the number the entire time,” Branden said. “He has all the resources in the world. It was a growing time for our hearts, for our trust in him, for us to hold things loosely. That was the more significant thing. He drew us to himself. Our view of money now is much different.”

Watch more of Branden and Ashley’s story here and here.

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Christina Darnell
Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.

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