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LOHS student Ari Vest discovers the mini windfall just in time for her Sweet 16 birthday celebration

SUBMITTED PHOTO: AMARA MCCARTHY - Lake Oswego High School student Ari Vest beams with her 'Benny Bill' and new binder.What's a "Benny bill"?

No, it's definitely not a fee charged by Oregon State University's mascot, Benny the Beaver. A Benny Bill is one of thousands of crisp $100 bills — with Benjamin Franklin's image on the front — that have been hidden in stores throughout the Willamette Valley by an unknown benefactor.

Since 2013, more than $51,000 has been left for strangers to find in cereal boxes, baby strollers and other everyday items. Last week, a Lake Oswego girl with little change to spare found one just in time for her 16th birthday.

SUBMITTED PHOTO: AMARA MCCARTHY - An anonymous benefactor has left 'Benny Bills' throughout the Willamette Valley. Since their old binders were falling apart, Lake Oswego High School sophomore Ari Vest says she and younger sister Tirzah decided to pick up some new ones on Aug. 28 at the Office Depot in Tigard. Ari was about to select a blue binder, but Tirzah, an LOHS freshman, steered her away from it to a smart black one with a soft cloth cover.

That turned out to be a $100 decision, but the girls didn't know it yet. In fact, it wasn't until the next day, when Ari was prepping for the first day of classes, when she found the money folded up inside.

The timing could not have been better for the young artist, who celebrated her 16th birthday on Sept. 7. Ari loves tinkering with special effects in animation, but she lacks a key tool to pursue her dream.

"I've never really had this much money," she says. "So what I'm hoping to do is to save up for a really good animation program like 'Toon Boom' and to have some backup money for my family when we're going through a hard time."

The girls' mom, Amara McCarthy, says the windfall came "at a very good time" for the family.

"It kind of felt like 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,'" McCarthy says. "Some people pay forward, and other people — they need to keep it."

("Willy Wonka" is a 1971 fantasy film, later remade, that was based on a Roald Dahl novel in which a boy finds a golden ticket to a mysterious factory inside the wrapper of a chocolate bar.)

But what intrigues McCarthy is that not only is the timing ideal for her family, but the bill carries a story. When her daughter showed her the bill and she saw the word "Benny" scrawled across the front, she says she thought to herself, "There must be something more to it."

So she did some research and learned that Benny is the name people have given to the anonymous philanthropist who has been tucking the bills into merchandise at stores, mostly in the Salem area, for at least the past four years.

"There's a whole database people can enter when they find a Benny bill," McCarthy says. "They find them in so many different places, in diaper bags ... even dropped in their car if their window's open a crack. But mostly it happens in Salem, so we were surprised when we found it here in the Office Depot."

Ari says the story seems so strange, especially since the sisters wouldn't have found the money if they hadn't changed their mind about the color of a school binder at the very last minute. She says she's still reeling from the surprise.

"It was completely mind-blowing," Ari says.

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