Jeff Harmon, owner of Missouri Wind And Solar, shows off the contents a little girl's letter.
This Christmas story opens, as many do, with a child's letter. Addressed to a generous tinkerer many miles away, the envelope contained a single folded sheet of paper and five one-dollar bills, each skimmed from a week's worth of lunch money.
The message itself, handwritten in pencil, contained three things: a wish, a plea for secrecy and a boldfaced lie. We'll get to that last part in a bit.
Earlier this month, the letter arrived at the offices of Missouri Wind and Solar, located some 45 miles east of Springfield, and made its way to the desk of the company's founder, Jeff Harmon, a wiry man with large glasses and a drooping black mustache. A minor celebrity among the DIY crowd, Harmon hosts a YouTube channel and produces instructional videos on building wind turbines and solar panels. He's used to hearing from students working on school projects, but this letter was different.
In a video uploaded December 13, Harmon looked into the camera and said, "Nine-year-old Ariel from Stephenville, Texas, this video is for you."
Harmon picked up a sheet of lined paper from a kitchen table. "I've got to read this letter to you," he told his audience.
A close-up of the letter and cash mailed by a fan.
"Dear Jeff," the letter began. "My name is Ariel. I am nine years old and in the fourth grade. I've been watching your show on YouTube. I hope I am as smart as you when I grow up and can build a wind turbine. I have a science fair coming up in January of 2016 and I want to do a project on renewable energy."
Adorable. And nothing out of the ordinary so far. But then the letter took an unexpectedly heartbreaking turn.
"I want to build a wind turbine like you and show the world my wind turbine and keep my parents from arguing over high electric bills. My brother helped me look on Ebay after I saw your demonstration on how the Freedom wind turbine works. The Freedom would be perfect for my science project. Mama says we don't have enough money. She tried to help me but isn't very good at building stuff."
Apparently, the five dollars Ariel included with the letter were intended to purchase a Freedom II, which is a five-blade, 60-pound turbine that Missouri Wind and Solar sells on its website for $768.
"I should have enough money saved up," Ariel's letter concluded. "I saved my lunch money all week. I got to win the science fair, so mama will be proud of me. Thank for your help, please don't tell mama I didn't eat my lunch. I'll get in trouble."
The letter was signed, "Your friend, Ariel." (Harmon redacted the last name in the video.)
Harmon was moved by Ariel's innocent requests, and he knew what it felt like to struggle with paying bills.
And so to help Ariel's parents lower their energy costs, Harmon told his YouTube audience that he would send a case of LED light-bulbs to replace the inefficient bulbs in their house. For Ariel, he would send a "special science fair project."
Harmon also said he would mail Ariel's parents a check for $500.
"A nine-year-old kid shouldn't have to worry about their parents' electric bill or them fighting about an electric bill," Harmon said in the video. "That's horrible."
But there was a critical hitch in Harmon's plan. Ariel's loopy handwriting on the envelope had left the return address virtually unreadable. And there was a timing issue as well, since Harmon wanted the turbine kit to reach Ariel before the science fair. In a last ditch effort, Harmon took the envelope to a postal worker who gave Harmon his best guess at the address. Harmon decided to send a turbine kit designed for educational purposes. He hoped it reached Ariel in time.
When Riverfront Times first contacted Harmon last week, he was still searching for the little girl's address. He knew that her family lived in Stephenville, a city of roughly 19,000 about 110 miles west of Dallas, but that's where his certainty ended. One of his YouTube fans even tried identifying local science fairs in the Stephenville area, hoping that it would point them to Ariel, but that tactic went nowhere. Harmon didn't want to send the $500 or the light-bulbs until he confirmed the address.
"I don’t know if she got the turbine or not," Harmon said Wednesday, sounding resigned. "If I sent it to the wrong place, well, OK then."
With a little social media snooping, we were able to find Ariel's mother and step-father in Stephenville. And yes, a mysterious FedEx package had arrived earlier that same day, December 17. There was a turbine kit inside.
But that's not where this Christmas story ends. It turns out that there was more to Ariel's letter than just a little girl's science fair project.
"After watching the video, we realized it wasn’t Ariel that sent the letter," laughs Daniel, her step-father, during a phone interview. "It was actually Alice. She used her sister’s name in order to try not to get in trouble because she didn't eat her lunch."
The fib goes even deeper. Ariel isn't just the name of Alice's sister — it is the name of Alice's unborn sister, due to be born in January. So when Alice's pregnant mother, Robin, inspected the mysterious package on her porch, she was confronted with the name of a child who wasn't even born yet.
"I opened it up, and I was like, 'What in the world is this?'" Robin says. "I went to go pick up Alice from school and when she saw the package she was so excited about it. And I’m looking at her going, ‘What is in the world is going on?’ I could tell she was keeping something from me, but she wouldn't tell me what it was."
After watching the video, it all made sense. Alice finally fessed up to the identity theft, explaining that she didn't want to get in trouble for laundering her lunch money.
Daniel provides the backstory to Alice's precocious plan: the family has been struggling with their electric bill for years. He says he started watching Harmon's YouTube channel about two years ago, hoping he could make the family self-sufficient or at least put a dent in the monthly bill. Alice would watch the videos along with him.
The worst of the family's bill problems came last year, when the electric company shut off their power at four in the morning. For the clutch of baby cockatiels the family was raising, the sudden cold proved deadly.
"Alice was just absolutely devastated by it," Daniel says. "At that point she decided she wanted to help me try to build a wind turbine so our electricity would never get shut off again." But Daniel could never seem to get his DIY turbines to generate enough voltage, and he said that he recently gave up on the whole endeavor.
It fell to Alice to kept the dream alive.
"It was kind of disappointing that she lied about who she was," Daniel says. "She should have just been honest from the get-go about the whole thing. But kids do what they do." And in this case, Alice taking matters into her own hands led to a happy ending — all thanks to Jeff Harmon, who says that the LED light-bulbs and $500 check are finally on their way to Texas. Hard to get too upset about that.