Richard Baer, the co-owner of Albert's Pizza in Ronkonkoma who...

Richard Baer, the co-owner of Albert's Pizza in Ronkonkoma who runs a popular pay-it-forward pizza campaign, received this note recently from a customer crediting the gesture with saving him from suicidal thoughts. Credit: Richard Baer

A pay-it-forward pizza campaign has brightened the days of dozens since it first launched in January, but has done much more for a recent widower.

Richard Baer, who co-owns Albert’s Pizza in Ronkonkoma, got an emotional thank-you last week from a customer who said receiving a free pie and a note of encouragement from a stranger lifted him from a deep despair that included suicidal thoughts.

Earlier this year, customers at the pizzeria began preordering pies for people they think are deserving and writing messages to them on the box, Newsday reported in February. People who want to participate can buy a pie and dedicate it to a specific person; someone in a particular profession like a nurse or a soldier; or just someone who appears in need of kindness.

Dennis Kust, 59, of Ronkonkoma was on the receiving end in March when he got a pizza with the message “stay strong” written on the box. Baer remembers choosing it for him.

“I could tell, he looked a little spaced out, a little disheveled,” Baer said of Kust. “He looked like he was struggling with something emotionally.”

It had been a tough week, Kust said. March 18 was his late wife’s birthday and the anniversary of her death from cancer was approaching.

“I was at a low point. Whoever paid it forward really helped me out of a bad spot,” he said, adding that he attends grief counseling and is feeling much better now. “They saved my life.”

The message on the pizza box, “stay strong,” was something Kust said his wife always told him. He said he still has the top half of the pizza box, stored away in a plastic bag to remind him of a stranger’s generosity.

Last Saturday Kust came to the store and handed Baer a note he had written on lined paper, thanked him again for the pie and left the restaurant.

“I was thinking of suicide that evening when I received someone’s thoughtful gift [and] it made me a little less depressed,” he wrote, adding that he believed the “stay strong” message was a sign from his wife. “I cried not sad tears but happy tears because the last month of her life she told me when I’m gone you have to be strong.”

When Baer received the note, he said, he went to the bathroom and started “crying hysterically.”

“I was touched,” Baer said. “It can just be one small thing that can make a difference for people.”

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