8 Lottery Winner Success Stories That Will Inspire You to Buy a Ticket

Lottery Winners Used Their Jackpot to Change Their Lives and Communities

$55 million Florida Lottery winner Sheelah Ryan (C)
 Bettmann/Getty Images

If you've read the stories about lottery curse victims, you might worry that buying a lottery ticket isn't worth it. Who wants to risk winning a Powerball or Mega Millions jackpot when there's a chance that your windfall will bring suicide, murder, or financial ruin?

Luckily, while there are many people who don't know how to handle a sudden windfall, there are even more lottery winners who use their winnings to make a positive difference in their lives and their communities. Here are eight lottery success stories that will inspire you to buy a ticket.

1. A Powerball Jackpot Lets a Cowboy Keep Ranching

Things were looking bad for 23-year-old Neal Wanless back in 2009. The down-on-his-luck cowboy was behind on his property taxes, couldn't make basic repairs around his ranch, and was trying to sell scrap metal for a little bit of extra cash. He was one of the poorest ranchers in Todd County, South Dakota ⁠— one of the least prosperous areas in America.

On a feed run to a local town (prophetically named Winner), Neal decided to take a risk and spend a little of his hard-earned cash on a Powerball ticket. He spent $5 on five plays and selected numbers from family members' birth dates.

That risk paid off when he won one of the biggest Powerball jackpots in history. After taxes, the lump-sum payment ended up being about $88.5 million.

Neal Wanless said he was going to continue to work the ranch, but he'd put also put part of the money to work helping others in his community. "That's just the way it is in this part of the state, people help people, we know one another," said Timothy Grablander, mayor of the town where Wanless' ranch is located.

2. A Single Mother of Five Wins a Life-Changing Powerball Jackpot

When Cynthia P. Stafford's brother was killed by a drunk driver, she took in his five children, raising them as a single mother. As if that weren't enough, she also helped her father make ends meet.

In January of 2007, money was tight. She was living with her large family in a tiny, thousand-square-foot house, struggling to pay the bills and dreaming of winning the lottery. Not just any lottery, either: a jackpot worth exactly $112 million. And that's exactly what she did.

In 2004, the number, "$112 million," popped into Stafford's head. She started focusing on winning that exact amount.

She used several methods to attract luck including sleeping with the number on a note under her pillow, meditating on winning a $112 million jackpot, and visualizing how it would feel once she won.

In an amazing stroke of luck, three years later, Stafford walked away with the exact jackpot she had dreamed of winning.

Cynthia Stafford credits the law of attraction and prayer for her prize, which let her tackle her family's financial problems and even start a film company so that she could follow her dream career.

If you're wondering how she did it, Stafford bought tickets just a couple of times a month, and she picked whichever numbers came into her head at the moment. She still buys lottery tickets every week, in the hope of becoming a rare multiple-jackpot winner.

3. Mega Millions Winners Honor Their Parents With a Splash Park 

When John and Linda Kutey's office lottery pool won one of Mega Millions' biggest jackpots, the Kuteys knew that they wanted to show respect for their parents by doing something for their community. So they went to the Green Island village hall and asked how they could help.

The answer was to help renovate a local park, replacing an older wading pool with a modern spray park.

The spray park gives local children a place to cool off in the summer, and it didn't cost the taxpayers a cent. The Kuteys not only donated the new equipment but also everything needed to install it. 

The Kuteys were also able to make some personal improvements with the lottery money. John Kutey left his job working for New York State Homes and he and his wife moved to a beautiful house in Florida ⁠— where they could show off Linda's beloved Disney collection.

Even though the after-tax take-home value of the prize was "only" $19 million, the Kutey's were able to use their jackpot to help themselves and the people around them.

4. Family of Jackpot Winners Joins Together to Improve Their City

Pearlie Mae Smith raised her seven children to be aware of how important it is to give back to their community. The kids grew up volunteering in soup kitchens and working in community gardens.

So when the family won a $429 million Powerball jackpot, it was clear to them that they wanted to use their windfall to improve the lives of people around them who weren't so lucky.

Although the huge lottery jackpot was split evenly among the eight family members, not all of them quit their jobs. One daughter, for example, decided to continue with her work mentoring other women ⁠— and used the cash to help fund the program.

The family started the Smith Family Foundation to provide funding for grassroots organizations working to improve the lives of people in their hometown of Trenton, New Jersey. The foundation's priorities include education, neighborhood development, and supporting youth and families in the Trenton area.

5. School Teacher Uses Jackpot Money to Bring Joy to Children

Les Robins was working as a high school teacher before he won the lottery. He often reflected that it was a shame that kids today don't grow up doing the kinds of activities he himself had enjoyed as a child: going to camp, swimming, playing sports, and exploring the outdoors.

So when he won a $111 million Powerball jackpot, Robins decided to use the funds to create his own camp to bring joy to kids.

He founded Camp Winnegator on 226 acres that he bought with his lottery money, and it operated for over a decade. It provided children a low-cost place to go in the summer where they could ride horses, make crafts, swim, and play on the lake. Best of all, the kids had a chance to disconnect from video games and cell phones and get in touch with nature and their real-life friends.

6. Florida Lottery Winner Leaves a Legacy of Good Works Behind

Sheelah Ryan won $52 million in the Florida State Lottery ⁠— which at the time was the biggest individual lottery jackpot ever won. She then spent the last years of her life giving that money away.

As many lottery winners have expressed, she felt that she'd won the money for a reason, and that reason was to help others. She created a charitable group to help organizations that help the underprivileged.

Ryan only had six years to enjoy her winnings before dying of cancer, but The Ryan Foundation outlasted her, continuing to give grants to organizations that built low-cost housing, helped children who needed operations they couldn't afford, and aided senior citizens, especially in her home of Seminole County, Florida.

7. Powerball Winners Use Their Jackpot to Fight the Disease That Killed Their Granddaughter

When Paul and Sue Rosenau won $181.2 million from a Powerball drawing in 2008, they knew exactly what they wanted to do with the money. Their winning ticket was purchased five years to the day that their granddaughter, Makayla, died of a rare, incurable disease.

Krabbe Disease affects only one out of about 100,000 newborns, so it doesn't receive the funding that many more common diseases do. It's a devastating, degenerative illness that attacks the lining of the nerves and usually results in death within the first two years.

Paul and Sue Rosenau founded The Legacy of Angels to increase awareness of the disease and to help fund promising research into treatment and cures. They serve on the foundation's board of directors, hoping to save other families from the pain they experienced.

8. Man Donates Lottery Jackpot to Fight Disease That Killed His Wife

Most people who win the lottery make plans to quit their job, travel the world, or buy a new house or car. But when Tom Crist won $40 million in a Canadian lottery, he had a very different idea. He donated every single dollar to fight the disease that killed his wife.

Two years earlier, Tom lost Jan, his wife of 44 years, to cancer. And at the point he won the jackpot, he was retired, had money saved up, and his adult children were doing well ⁠— so he decided not to keep any of it for himself at all.

He donated the entire lump sum (and in Canada, lottery winnings aren't taxed!) to a cancer charity in Calgary. His kids totally supported the idea.


As you can see, many lottery winners are able to do use their prizes to do good, both for themselves and for the people around them. There's no reason why a jackpot has to make you the target of a curse.

Remember, though, that while the lottery curse is no good reason to avoid picking up a ticket, the risk of losing your money is. Buying lottery tickets should only be done for fun and to give you that lovely dream of winning, not as a serious way to make money or save for retirement. If you can't afford to lose the money you're spending on your tickets, it's best not to play.