Mike Esmond knows what it's like to not have enough money to keep the heat on at Christmas time.
In December 1983, he was living in Pensacola with his three daughters when his heat and power were shut off due to bill nonpayment. That Christmas was the coldest December day ever recorded in Pensacola — a bone-chilling 9 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
"That year, we didn't have any heat and it was the coldest recorded temperature (in December) Pensacola has ever had," Esmond recalled. "We had icicles hanging off our windows."
Now, the 73-year-old Gulf Breeze resident owns the successful business Gulf Breeze Pools and Spa and is doing his part to make sure that other local families don't suffer the way he did in 1983.
Earlier this month, Esmond went to the city of Gulf Breeze and requested a list of all utility accounts that were past due and at risk of having their gas and water turned off. There were 36 households with past due accounts.
Esmond paid off every single one of them — in total, approximately $4,600 worth of bills.
"I wanted to do something that I felt would really help people at Christmas time who are trying to decide between paying bills and maybe having something cut off, or buying presents for their family," Esmond said. "When I got my utility bill this month, I noticed that it said the cutoff date was Dec. 26, so I went to the city and asked how many people were going to have their gas or water shut off before Christmas, so they gave me the numbers and I paid them."
Instead of sending out notices that their gas and water were being shut off, the city sent out cards notifying the 36 households of Esmond's act of kindness:
"It is our honor and privilege to inform you that your past due utility bill has been paid by Gulf Breeze Pools and Spas," the card read. "You can rest easier this holiday season knowing you have one less bill to pay."
Angela Cascio was stunned when she checked her mailbox a week ago and found the Christmas card letting her know her utility bills had been paid.
The mother of four kids between the ages of 7 and 17 had gotten behind on her payments and was struggling to keep up while also buying gifts for Christmas.
"Without (Gulf Breeze Pools) paying that bill, my kids' Christmases would have greatly suffered," Cascio told the News Journal in a Facebook message on Monday. "Angels absolutely walk among us, and they are the epitome of kindness and what 'paying it forward' means to me."
Cascio said she couldn't help but cry when she read the card and realized her debts had been paid. She has since made an ornament depicting the Nativity scene and is planning on giving it to Esmond to thank him for what he did for her.
"My kids are old enough that they see their mom struggle to make ends meet," she said. "They saw me burst into tears when I read the card that Gulf Breeze Pools sent to me. I am forever grateful."
Gulf Breeze Pools' Facebook page has been flooded with similar comments from others who found themselves on the receiving end of Esmond's generosity. Another woman left a review thanking the company for the "pleasant surprise" and vowed to pay it forward.
"I do not have a pool, I have never experienced their work," the woman's review said. "However, for the first time in a very long time today, I was genuinely surprised by the generosity of this wonderful community that we live in. I received a Christmas card in the mail from Gulf Breeze Pools and Spas, informing me that they had paid a past due utility bill. ... It's a wonderful company with a strong community spirit to pay locals' bills, but even more so at such randomness that it would not benefit them in any way since I don't have a pool or ever plan on getting one."
Esmond said he's touched by the response he's received so far from the community, but said he never planned to make a big deal about it. He said he's simply a man who has been blessed with success in the past 10 years and has found a way to help others during a time of need.
"I've lived it," he said. "I raised three daughters and struggled and had hard times in my life where I couldn't pay bills, so I know what it's like to live like that. It makes me feel good to help people out, especially when you're expecting a disconnect notice in the mail and you get a Christmas card like that instead."
This is the first time Esmond has paid off past due utility bills for strangers, but serving his community isn't out of the ordinary for the Vietnam veteran.
During the Gulf War in 1991, Esmond placed American flags up and down the Pensacola Bay Bridge to encourage patriotism and recognize service members. News reports from the time referred to him as the "Phantom Patriot" because nobody could figure out who was placing the flags.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Esmond lined the same bridge with American flags and kept replacing them until May 2002, when the last remains were removed from the World Trade Center site.
Most Memorial Days, Esmond goes around to make sure that flags are flying at half staff, and replaces tattered flags with new ones he keeps in stock.
When asked if he would pay utility bills for strangers again next year, Esmond laughed.
"My answer is, well, if I kept doing this then nobody would pay their utility bills next year," he said.
Esmond plans to find other ways to help people in his community, be it with grand gestures like the $4,600 surprise payoff or smaller acts like replacing tattered American flags hanging off people's porches.
He hopes his simple act of kindness this Christmas will inspire other people to do good as well.
"It's who I am now because I'm finally at a point in my life where I'm not struggling with bills anymore and I can share some of my success," he said. "I'm no Quint Studer or Fred Levin, I can pay my bills but I'm certainly not somebody that's rich. I'm hoping that I can send a message to other businessmen or people that are in the same status as me that there are people out there that can be helped. You don't have to be a millionaire to help people."
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.