Meet Sheelah Ryan - An Inspiring Woman Who Used Her Lottery Win for a Good Cause

Over the years, people have gotten accustomed to horror stories about lottery winners who spend their winnings on booze, drugs, and gambling. Many winners dominated the news headlines with their outlandish behavior. It is uncommon that you hear about an amazing lottery winner story that restores your faith in humanity.

Sheelah Ryan from New York warmed people's hearts by sharing the winnings with others. She made a difference in the community after winning a staggering $55.2 million jackpot in September 1988. Her winnings were part of the Florida Lottery.

The amazing woman established a foundation aimed at channeling funds to the less fortunate people in the community. This non-profit entity donated large amounts of money to worthy causes, including paying medical bills for children in need of surgical procedures.

Sheelah's philanthropic work also extended to the construction of low-cost housing for low-income households. Many single mothers struggling to put food on the table and pay rent found relief when the Ryan Foundation paid off overdue rent. This gesture helped prevent the eviction of countless single mothers and their children.

A big heart

The golden girl of the lottery lived a modest life when she won the millions. She told reporters that buying fancy cars and being traveling in chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce was not her style. Instead, she preferred sharing the winnings with others. At the time, she asked her friend who was an accountant to assist her to set up a non-profit organization.

Pamela O'Hab who became a member of the foundation's board of directors said her friend was one of the greatest people she had known. Pamela started the foundation is involved in various community-based projects in areas like education.

At the time of the interview in 2015, O'Hab noted that the organization is still funded by Sheelah's lottery winnings. The entity supports backpack programs and works closely with women's rights organizations.


In 1994, Sheelah passed away after battling with cancer. However, Her demise did not extinguish the philanthropic work she started as the Ryan Foundation continued to operate. Pamela O'Hab vowed to keep the organization running to ensure that Sheelah's legacy lives on.

Ryan was well-known for resisting the celebrity status and avoiding publicity. She thanked God for blessing her and creating an opportunity to help less fortunate people. O'Hab noted that Sheelah left the foundation well funded.

Ryan had several nephews and nieces but no children of her own. Some of her sisters-in-law are members of the Ryan Foundation board of directors. Before winning the lottery, she was employed as a real estate broker. She lived a modest life at the trailer home park located in Winter Springs.

According to reports, she won a $55.2 million lottery jackpot after her numbers were drawn on Labor Day weekend. Her fortune came after lottery results for several weeks produced no winners. This meant that the jackpot grew to record highs before Sheelah picked the right numbers.

Modest lifestyle

Despite the fame and fortune, Ryan continued to live a modest lifestyle. Her charity work attracted news crews and curious onlookers who gathered at her home. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of the new lottery multimillionaire. She received many calls from males suitors proposing marriage. Others offered investment tips or sent loan requests.

Major television networks invited her for interviews on morning programs. In most cases, she shied away from publicity and revealed a few details about her private life. Reports showed that Ryan was born and raised in New York City before migrating to Florida in 1975.

When asked about her personal life, she often refused to divulge any details, including whether she had ever been married. People knew that Sheelah had no children and lived with her cats. The mystery surrounding her private life persisted even after her death.

A tribute to a person named Bill W. contained in a funeral notice became a source of speculation. Sheelah's nephew Dennis Ryan declined to shed light on the mysterious Bill who many believed was the man in her life for 38 years. Dennis said the tribute was self-explanatory to people who knew Bill W.

A shining beacon

Sheelah winnings were paid out over 20 years but she passed away six years after her win. At the time of her death, she had received $16.6 million and subsequent payments were diverted to her estate. Some of the funds enabled the Ryan Foundation to continue running operations.

In turn, many underprivileged people are still benefiting from the funds long after the founder passed away. Several of her relatives, including sisters-in-law, nephews, and nieces are members of the foundation's board of directors. It comes as no surprise that Sheelah's family and friends are committed to ensuring that her legacy lives on.

Ryan provides a shining example that lottery winnings can be used to change communities for the better. Many people are searching for a miracle that transforms their life. Sheelah showed the world that everyone can play a part in making underprivileged people find hope.

Sheelah became the miracle that many sick children and low-income households need. Her reputation and legacy will continue shining brightly in the hearts and minds of people touched by her kindness.

4 Min Read

We Need Moms in the Resistance

After I exchanged enough information with the Uber driver to confirm that neither one of us was likely a serial killer, the spotless sedan was quickly filled with enough small talk to occupy the brief ride.

"What do you do?"

"I'm a writer."

"Ah, what do you write?"

At the time, I was deep in writing my debut non-fiction book, Raising the Resistance: A Mother's Guide to Practical Activism, and had been busy typing away about feminism, reproductive justice, antiracism, and other topics that don't normally come up during a short Uber ride with a stranger but had consumed my work and much of my life.

"I'm writing a book," I responded.

"Oh! About what?"

"Motherhood and political activism."

In response to this revelation, he promptly drove us into oncoming traffic. No, not really. He just wrinkled his nose and said, "Well, that's an odd combination."

This wasn't a completely isolated incident. Many people express a bit of surprise about the intersection. As I explored other books in the parenting genre, I saw many titles about the stages of parenthood—pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, sleep training, etc. There were lots of books about a mom's journey to postpartum weight loss, but none about a mom's journey finding her role in a political uprising.

If we want the future to be kinder and more just, the next generation must also be kinder and promote justice.

I understood it might seem strange, because our culture puts impossible pressure on mothers and it's rare to empower them. Being apolitical is presented as the safest, most neutral option for women to take because it doesn't anger anyone or make things awkward. But choosing not to engage in politics is in itself a political stance. There is no true neutral option. Just like Desmond Tutu famously said, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

Of course, I wouldn't assume oppression is the goal of any mom who just wants to avoid Facebook arguments and keep the peace at PTA meetings. But as we face injustice, we cannot avoid neutrality.

It doesn't help women to embrace apolitical stances either. Maybe one mother doesn't like to get involved in politics, but everyone around her does. The bank managing her mortgage does. Her boss paying her less than her male colleagues does. The insurance company determining her healthcare options does. Decisions affecting our lives are being made all the time. Women are already severely underrepresented in elected offices. We cannot simply sit back and trust our self-interest will be represented when we don't have a seat at the table. That hasn't worked out for us so far.

I was inspired by so many other women who realized they needed to be the ones to step up against bigotry and injustice. As a young mother of a toddler and an infant after the election of 2016, I also noticed that those leading the newly minted resistance were also mothers. I rode a crowded bus to Washington, D.C. from Louisville, KY to attend the inaugural Women's March which became the biggest single-day protest in the history of the United States. And who did that? Mothers. Founder Bob Bland gave birth to her second daughter shortly after the 2016 election and joined fellow moms and co-chairs Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour on stage with her baby in tow.

Maybe one mother doesn't like to get involved in politics, but everyone around her does.

Since then, I have continued to see women juggling their roles as mothers and political activists. In the ongoing uprising against racism and police brutality, my city—Louisville, KY—has become an epicenter of protest in the wake of Breonna Taylor's killing. Many of the Black leaders who have been fighting racial injustice locally for years are also mothers. I watched them braid their daughters' hair while they discuss the need for an end to structural racism in our community on Zoom calls. Many of the protestors who have been filling the streets for over three months and facing rubber bullets, tear gas, and arrests kiss their children good night first. When it's time for protestors to be released on bond, you may even see a line of minivans outside the jail with moms volunteering as part of the community bail fund to help the released protestors get back home.

Even moms who lived previously apolitical lives and sought not to create waves have found their place in political activism as they feel morally compelled to take action. The resistance is filled with new activists who you can catch saying things like, "I never expected to be here."

Of course, I wouldn't assume oppression is the goal of any mom who just wants to avoid Facebook arguments and keep the peace at PTA meetings. But as we face injustice, we cannot avoid neutrality.

Motherhood and political activism should be viewed as a natural pairing. So much of our lives are not only determined by political decisions, but we have the enormous responsibility of shaping the future. If we want the future to be kinder and more just, the next generation must also be kinder and promote justice.

Moms fix their kids' skinned knees, hurt feelings, and broken hearts. Our country is looking largely hurt and broken right now and we, as mothers, need to rise up and help fix it by the way we raise the future.