A Publix employee’s friendship with a toddler shopper goes viral

For several years, Rachel Smith’s Saturday morning routine started with a trip to Publix, accompanied by her toddler daughter, Fiona, and Smith’s parents.

While the primary purpose of their Publix outing was to buy groceries, the family had another reason for visiting a particular Fort Myers, Fla., location: to see Gilnet Sainvil.

Sainvil, who has worked at Publix since 2014, became friends with Fiona, who was then a year old. He would greet her each time with an enthusiastic high-five and a huge smile.

It took the toddler a few times to figure out how to give a high-five when Sainvil offered her his hand.

“She didn’t really know what to do with it,” Smith said. “We’d give him high-fives, and eventually she caught on. This happened every Saturday like clockwork.”

By the time Fiona was 2, she was very familiar with the high-five, and the moment she and her family arrived at the store, she would dash over to Sainvil in the produce section, her tiny arms flailing as she readied herself for his greeting. She soon started referring to her newfound friend as “High Five.”

“She would just look for me,” said Sainvil, 53. “She always said, ‘High-five!’ I was very excited to see her.”

As time passed, their bond continued, and Smith and her parents, Paul and Cindy Sikkenga, also became fond of Sainvil. They all exchanged phone numbers and kept in contact outside their Saturday visits. Sainvil would sometimes call just to check-in and say hi, and vice versa.

“His fondness for Fiona was very touching,” Paul Sikkenga said. “Fiona craves affection, and Gilnet was a bottomless well of that for her.”

Every Saturday morning, Sainvil — who moved to the United States from Haiti in 2006 — greeted the family with “open arms, a happy smile, a hearty hello and, of course, many enthusiastic high-fives,” said Cindy Sikkenga.

As Fiona’s third birthday drew near in March 2019, Sainvil, a father of three daughters — ages 15, 12 and 10 — dropped off a gift for her at her grandparents’ house. It was a pink princess bicycle.

“I was blown away,” said Smith, adding that it was her daughter’s first bike. “This is not the sort of thing that you come to expect from people.”

“He not only has brought her much joy and happiness over the years, but he also has served as a living example to her of how to be a good and true friend,” said Cindy Sikkenga.

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Sainvil’s motivation to buy Fiona the bike, he said, was simple. “I’ve got three girls. All three girls loved pink bikes, and I wanted Fiona to have a pink bike, too,” he said. “She is my family. She is my little girl.”

No one was more thrilled about the bicycle than Fiona herself.

“Immediately, she wanted to do a photo shoot,” her mother said, adding that she hoped to give Sainvil some pictures of her with her brand-new bike.

The following Saturday, Smith and Fiona visited Sainvil at work to deliver him a thank-you card and several hugs. Smith captured the sweet moment on video, and watched it whenever she needed a pick-me-up.

Not long after Fiona’s third birthday, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and their Saturday morning tradition came to an abrupt halt. Plus, around the same time, Sainvil’s manager transferred him to a different Publix location, in Cape Coral, nearly 10 miles away by road.

Although they no longer saw each other regularly, the family stayed in touch with Sainvil, and, as she got older, Fiona, now 6, often spoke of her friend “High Five.”

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Their friendship came to the forefront recently when Smith spontaneously decided to post the dated video of Fiona giving Sainvil her card on TikTok. Smith’s goal in sharing the touching interaction, she said, was to bring some brightness to the Internet.

“The world has been a really hard place to live in the past couple years,” she said. “I put this on social media only to be a conduit to help spread happiness.”

In a matter of days, the video was viewed millions of times.

“I had no idea that it would be so well-received,” said Smith, who works in data analytics. “Seeing this particular thing have such a positive reception gives me so much hope.”

As the video continued to spread widely, Fiona grew eager to reunite with Sainvil, whom she hadn’t seen in two years, and on March 30, the family surprised him at work.

“Oh, my God!” he exclaimed as they walked toward him. “I can’t believe it. There’s my Fiona.”

“Now she is a big girl,” said Sainvil, who hoisted Fiona into the air as soon as she approached him. “It was a good day for me. She has my heart.”

Fiona was equally delighted to see her dear friend, whom she still calls “High Five.”

“It made my heart sing,” she said of their reunion.

People on social media started suggesting to Smith that she start a GoFundMe for Sainvil, perhaps as a way to surprise him with a gift in a similar way that he had surprised Fiona on her birthday. Smith agreed.

“I’d love to give something tangible back to him for the unquantifiable joy he’s given my daughter her whole life,” she wrote in the GoFundMe description.

Within about a week, the fundraiser reached close to $8,000, mostly in small amounts from people who were touched by Sainvil’s kindness.

“Beautiful souls like him deserve any and all recognition for the light they shine into the world!” commented one contributor, who gave $10.

Sainvil said he is moved by all the praise and attention: “I feel very, very excited,” he said.

Smith is planning to go to Publix with Fiona and her parents to present Sainvil with the gift in the coming weeks.

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Beyond the generous donations many strangers have made, what has struck Smith most, she said, are the many comments people shared on social media, recounting similar stories of friendships.

“People have their own version of ‘High Five,’ ” she said.

“My daughter, when she was little, had a friend too from Target. Her name was Susan, she knew her from the time she was a baby,” one person commented on the GoFundMe page. “Every time we went in she asked for her. Susan always doted on her.”

Inspired by the many comments she read, Smith created a website called “Who’s Your High Five?”

People can contribute to the site by sharing their own similar stories of friendship, which Smith plans to share publicly, hoping to spread more joy.

“What connects us is people being kind,” she said. “It’s this great equalizer that makes us all come back together.”

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