Two days after her purse was stolen in Tucson, Arizona, in July, Carlotta Flores returned to work at her family’s Mexican restaurant, El Charro Cafe, feeling disheartened.
“I’d lost my faith in humanity — I felt like I’d been knocked down,” she tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t really care much at all that day about mankind.”
Then Flores, 72, opened a letter that one of her sons had left at the restaurant for her to pick up. Inside she found $1,000 in crisp $100 dollar bills and a note, penned neatly in blue ink.
“Dear Carlotta and Family,” the note read, “I worked for you as a waitress very briefly back in the 1990s. One of the waiters I worked with had encouraged me to ‘forget’ to ring in a few drinks a shift and pocket the cash. And for some stupid reason, I did it. It’s been 20 years, but I still carry great remorse. I am very sorry that I stole from you. Please accept my apology and this money as repayment + 20 years of interest.”
Flores was stunned as she read the letter a second time, looking for clues about who could have written it.
The writer said she’d been a student at the University of Arizona and had been fired before she could steal more than $100. She signed the note, “a thankful former employee,” and didn’t leave a return address on the envelope.
“I was touched that this woman had taken such a leap of faith, sending cash through the mail like that,” Flores tells PEOPLE. “It restored my faith that there are good people out there. I sat there and asked, ‘Would any of us have done the same to make a wrong right?’ One thousand dollars is a lot of money. I decided to use it as a teaching lesson.”
Flores, whose Tucson restaurant chain — she has three locations — has been in her family for almost 100 years, talked to her husband, Ray, 82, and her three children, Raymon, Marques and Candace, to come up with a plan to pay the good deed forward.
They decided to use the money to set up a fund for people in the hospitality industry who are facing hard times. They planned to add to the fund each year to benefit waiters, waitresses and cooks in need.
“I know that wherever this person is, whoever she is, she had to work hard to earn that money and send it to us,” says Flores.
“I want her to know that her decision has made a huge impact. We’ll be passing along her example of doing the right thing for many years to come.”