I never tire of watching videos of people receiving a windfall. I love seeing their reactions; it’s such a joy to witness the shift from confusion to disbelief and, ultimately, gratitude. More often than not, I find myself shedding tears of joy alongside them.
This is why I look forward to every new post on Zachery Dereniowski’s Instagram account, MDMotivator. Two years ago, he was a pre-med student grappling with depression. Not knowing whom to turn to, he thought of finding himself a friend online. So he created a TikTok video offering hugs to those who are heartbroken and feeling empty. To his astonishment, it went viral overnight! He found his calling and has not stopped making videos since. His usual modus operandi is to approach strangers and ask for small favors – a drink, a bite to eat, or a dollar to add to his transportation money. He reciprocates the kindness with cash exceeding what was given to him, or tickets to a concert or sports game topped with celebrity access, or some once-in-a-lifetime experience like skydiving. He has touched numerous lives, all witnessed by his 4.6 million followers on Instagram and 17.6 million on TikTok.
Last month, while Zach was at Expo City in Dubai for COP28, he happened to approach a Filipino – Robert Piñon from the Blu Matcha Café pop-up store. The video opens with Zach inquiring if he can purchase a USD1,000 straw, leaving Robert visibly perplexed. A short exchange about straws is then followed by Zach trying to convince Robert to accept AED3,000 (roughly P45,000) from him. Robert suggests that Zach donates it to an organization instead, agreeing to even help scout for one around the venue. When they couldn’t find any, Robert’s Plan B was for Zach to donate it online.
It was quite endearing how adamant Robert was about not taking the money. I found it amusing that Zach had to put in so much effort to persuade someone who clearly could benefit from the extra cash. In a comment on Instagram, he said it took him over an hour. He must’ve been scratching his head.
I was able to get hold of Robert two weeks after the video was posted online. “I found it so unusual. I couldn’t imagine receiving a tip that big out of nowhere,” he explains in Filipino why he kept saying no to the money, chuckling at the thought. Apparently, the money was initially offered to him after he had delivered Zach’s order to his table. When Robert refused, the chase ensued. Zach won, eventually and Robert distributed the cash among his colleagues. “Though Mr. Zach said that it was for me, I couldn’t keep it for myself because we all worked hard, so my co-workers deserved to get a share as well,” he says.
Through it all, Robert had no idea who Zach was. It was only after he posted a photo of himself with Zach on his personal Facebook account that he found out. “My sister told me that he’s a famous vlogger. I honestly didn’t know him,” Robert swears.
Despite learning who Zach is, Robert did not expect to appear in a video. “It did not cross my mind that there would be a video because I didn’t see him carrying a camera; I don’t know how he recorded our conversations,” he relates.
The video was posted 10 days after their encounter. Robert heard about it from one of his bosses. Blu Matcha Café’s Director of Operations, Chelsea Ashburn, sent him the link to the video. The following day, it was everywhere. Even Lovin’ Dubai reposted it. Friends and relatives from the Philippines were messaging him about it. “We had another event immediately after COP28, so I had no time to browse the internet. It was Ms. Chelsea who kept me updated on how far the video has reached.” I was impressed by how supportive Chelsea was; she was also the one who connected me with him. “Oh, our bosses are really nice. A toxic-free work environment like ours is hard to find,” he states.
It’s been only four months since he started working as a matcharista at Blu Matcha Cafe, but he’s been based in Dubai for nine years. He had just earned his Business Management degree from Meycauayan College when he decided to try his luck overseas. “The salary in the Philippines is not enough. My mom is a single parent, and I wanted to help her raise my younger brother and sister,” he explains. Through an agency, he flew to Dubai to be a cashier-waiter at a Filipino restaurant chain, he stayed there for four years. Then he moved to a coffee shop and became a barista for another four years before landing at Blu Matcha Cafe.
“I would say that life abroad is both happy and sad. Happy because you can provide for the needs of your family, but sad because you’re not with them,” he admits. The last time he went home to the Philippines was to surprise his mother, Loida, on her birthday. That was in October 2022. He hadn’t been home for five years before then. In Zach’s video, Robert mentioned that his mother taught him that “life will not be fair, but you need to be kind every time.”
“I saw all the hardship that my mother has been through. She accepted everything that came her way and did the best that she could, making sure that she didn’t step on anyone. She single-handedly brought us up and she frequently reminded us about being kind,” he recalls. “She gets her income from running a sari-sari store (a small neighborhood convenience store). At one point, she also had a carinderia (a small street-side restaurant that served affordable meals).”
I asked Robert what his long-term goal is. He said Zach asked him about his dreams too. “I don’t have any concrete plans; I just depend on God. That’s another thing that my mother taught us, to trust in His will,” he says.
As we wrapped up our conversation, Robert admitted that he’s still overwhelmed by what happened. “Out of all the people at the Expo, I still don’t understand why Mr. Zach chose me.”
Surely that was God’s will.