October 26, 2021
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The Big Win That Made a Big Difference

The Big Win That Made a Big Difference

The lottery has been played by millions of Americans for decades, and every winner – big or small – has their own story to share. Some are tragic, some are funny and some are truly inspiring. The story behind one of America’s biggest winners is heart-warming to say the least. New York born Sheelah Ryan lived a humble life in a small trailer park in Winter Springs. Her two adoring cats for companions, she spent her days working hard as a real estate agent. Although not much is known about a husband or children, Sheelah was surrounded by nephews and nieces who cherished her dearly.



On 3 September 1988, Sheelah Ryan became America’s largest individual lottery winner to date after playing the Florida Lottery. Sheelah was a regular lottery player and was stunned after discovering she had won $55.2 million in an instant! That year, the Florida Lottery had claimed no winners for several weeks, resulting in the substantial jackpot. Her life was forever changed, yet keeping her winnings for herself never appeared to be on her agenda.


Sheelah reportedly believed that God allowed her to win, not to hoard but to use to change the lives of others….And that she did! In spite of receiving global attention encouraging her to invest, donate or spend her winnings, Sheelah strove to remain out of the public eye and rather give the money away to those in need. Sheelah received marriage proposals from suitors all over the world, which she respectfully declined and instead pursued her life of humility and service. Agreeing to only 3 interviews on top news channels, Sheelah remained adamant that her winnings were not her own.


Image from Gettyimages.com

In December 1988 – a short 3 months after her win – Sheelah set up the Ryan Foundation. The foundation operates as a non-operating foundation that seeks to provide grants and funding to organisations who serve those less fortunate and the marginalised. Her founding statement and aim? We will make a difference!” 


The foundation has assisted a variety of causes since its inception, including providing care for stray cats, funding medical procedures for children in need of operations, upliftment of the homeless and support for single mothers who battle to make ends meet.Sheelah was due to receive her payout over 20 years when she tragically passed away from cancer a mere 6 years after her win at the age of 69. Sheelah had received $16.6 million, and the remainder went directly to her estate. Those overseeing the Ryan Foundation have ensured that Sheelah’s dream of making a difference continues unhindered. Several of her nephews and nieces serve on the board, seeing to it that their beloved aunt’s memory lives on.


Sheelah Ryan provides an incredible example that money does not need to change the core of who someone is; instead it can be used to better the lives of those who really need a miracle. Playing the lottery provided Sheelah with the greatest an opportunity to live out her dream – making a difference in the lives of others. May her memory and compassion be a source of great inspiration for years to come!

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