Shane Jones was looking to earn a little extra cash last summer when he stumbled upon YouTube videos explaining how to make money in a way he didn’t know existed: buying the contents of repossessed storage units.

When renters stop paying the monthly fee, everything inside a storage unit can be put up for auction.

The videos explained how to bid online for the contents, sight unseen. Shane thought it would be like a treasure hunt of sorts.

“It seemed like something fun to do. I had some money I’d saved from working in a used bookstore,” said Shane, 16, who lives in Wakefield, R.I., and often goes to yard sales in search of bottles and coins to collect, as well as hidden items of value to sell.

He found an auction in nearby Providence in August and put in a bid of $100 on the contents of a storage unit.

Shane was surprised when he won, he said, but when he went to his newly acquired unit, he realized right away that he shouldn’t keep the items.

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As he sorted through the household goods, stuffed animals and personal mementos, he remembers feeling sad – especially when he found documents belonging to the original owner.

“I realized then that this wasn’t the same as getting stuff at a yard sale,” Shane said. “This guy was in prison, and his storage unit was auctioned off because he couldn’t afford to pay for it. This was probably everything he had left.”

Shane’s parents, Patrick Jones and Sarah Markey, said they were more than happy to help him track down the man’s mother at a retirement home in Providence, then went with him to drop off the belongings.

“I called her up and offered to give her everything,” Shane said, adding that she was elated to have it all.

Shane said he was so inspired by the woman’s grateful reaction that he decided to enter other auctions with the hope of giving back the units’ contents.

A few months later, in October, Shane had saved enough money to bid on a second storage unit. His winning bid was $50.

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This time, while loading dishes, photo albums, knickknacks and books into his dad’s car, he found an address book in one of the boxes.

“The couple who rented the locker had passed away, but there was a phone number for their brother-in-law, and he was happy to come out and get everything,” he said. “He said there were a lot of family heirlooms that could have been lost.”

Then, in January, Shane won his third bid, also for $50. He found the renter’s name on some items in the storage unit and tracked her down in Connecticut.

He and his parents learned that the woman had lost her job, which was why she had fallen behind on renting the unit, he said. She had also lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome three years earlier.

“All of her baby items and all of her childhood photos were in the storage locker,” Shane said.

He and his parents carefully arranged the items on their front porch in January when the woman came to pick them up.

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“She started to cry and said everything she had to remind her of her baby was in that locker, and she just didn’t have the finances to keep up with the payments,” he said.

Shane didn’t expect that anyone would find out about his new pastime, but then word got out in late April at South Kingstown High School, where he attends. School district officials posted about his generosity on Facebook and local television stations began calling.

“We’re delighted to see one of our students doing such a wonderful thing,” said South Kingstown Principal Chip McGair.

Shane’s mom said the attention has been a little overwhelming for her son.

“But he also realizes that kindness inspires kindness,” said Markey, 40. “Buying the contents of a storage unit and giving them back is a creative way to pay it forward. Shane hopes that somebody else will get the idea to do the same thing in their own town.”

And now, Shane said, he’s looking for a fourth unit to bid on.

“I started out thinking that bidding at a storage auction was kind of like a yard sale, but now I know that’s not true,” he said. “These people didn’t choose to give me this stuff. They didn’t have a choice. It’s almost like a duty to give it back.”