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October 19. 2013 7:35PM

Generosity of Henniker waitress who paid soldiers' tab despite her own financial woes is rewarded

Henniker waitress Sarah Hoidahl, left, and the note she left for two National Guard soldiers picking up their tab in the government shutdown 

A Henniker waitress whose generosity to two furloughed National Guard soldiers earned her an appearance on "Ellen" was back on the job Saturday evening. But it may take some time before it's business as usual.

Sarah Hoidahl became an overnight sensation after word of her small good deed went viral last week.

Hoidahl, 22, is a single mom who lives with her mother and her 16-month-old son, Ashton, in a two-room house without a TV set. With no car, she has to bum rides to Ruby Tuesday in Concord, where she tends bar and works as a waitress.

Earlier this month, she paid the $27.75 bill for two women dressed in camouflage uniforms after she heard them talking about being furloughed. "Thanks to the gov. shutdown, the people like you that protect this country are not getting paid. However I still am. Lunch is on me," she wrote on the back his country are not getting paid. However I still am. Lunch is on me," she wrote on the back of their bill.

The two women, Hoidahl said in an interview, were "overjoyed" and hugged her. "You could just tell it meant the world to them."

She didn't tell her boss or even her mom what she did and didn't think any more of it.

But the world did.

Unbeknownst to Hoidahl, the two women told her boss what their waitress had done, and he told the New Hampshire National Guard. After the Guard posted an item about the incident on its Facebook page on Oct. 10, the media took notice, with stories appearing in newspapers all over the world.

Then came the call from the "Ellen" show. On Thursday, Hoidahl was in Los Angeles filming an interview with Ellen DeGeneres that aired Friday.

In the five-minute spot, DeGeneres first told Hoidahl, "I'm going to pay you back," and pulled out $27.75 from a small change purse. Then the talk-show host surprised her with a 50-inch television set and a giant check for $10,000 as Hoidahl burst into happy tears.

On Saturday, Hoidahl said she still can't quite believe what has transpired over the past week. "I so feel like I'm dreaming and I'm going to wake up and be like, 'I wish that dream was real.'"

Hoidahl's manager at Ruby Tuesday, Brian Hinckley, said the entire staff watched the show on Friday. "The whole restaurant stopped," he said. "They were all dancing and excited when they mentioned us."

Hinckley said Hoidahl still had a few surprises in store when she returned to work. "We've got packages coming for Sarah and fan mail coming for Sarah," he said. "We've had guests leave her money and stuff in envelopes."

It couldn't happen to a more deserving person, he said. "She's a sweetheart."

Sarah's mom, Linda Hoidahl, is a nurse at New England College in Henniker. She watched the "Ellen" show on campus Friday since they didn't have a TV at home - until now, that is.

Linda Hoidahl said her first thought when Sarah finally told her what she had done was how much her daughter needed the money herself. But that thought was quickly replaced by pride.

"I've always said no matter how bad things are for you, there's always somebody that has it worse, and you always need to remember that," she said.

Sarah Hoidahl credits how her mom brought her up for what she did. "She always raised me to be compassionate and do good every day," she said.

"My mom always told me growing up, 'We may not have a lot of money but we're rich in love.'"

Hoidahl said she'll use the $10,000 gift from DeGeneres to pay off her student loans and medical bills for knee surgery she underwent in 2010 when she had no medical insurance. She also plans to donate to the Chaplain's Emergency Relief Fund of the National Guard, which helps military families who face unexpected financial crises.

"I've always been a big believer in karma," she said. "I never thought it would come back to me this big. It's very humbling."

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