An anonymous donor is being praised for giving away more than $82,000 in food-related gift cards to every single household in a small Iowa town.
Amidst the COVID-19 shutdowns, the residents of Earlham—a city 30 miles west of downtown Des Moines with a population of 1,450 people—have been struggling to cope with shuttered businesses and social restrictions.
That’s why Earlham Mayor Jeff Lillie was astonished to receive a call from a friend in late March saying that an unidentified benefactor wanted to pump some money into the local economy by giving away gift cards to local businesses.
At first, the donor wanted to give away 100 gift cards to West Side Bar and Grille, local grocery store Hometown Market, and the newly-opened Trostel’s Broken Branch restaurant. An hour after discussing his plans with the mayor, the donor upped his offer to 250; another hour later, he said he wanted to donate 500 gift cards. When Mayor Lillie mentioned that there were 549 households in town, the donor agreed to give gift cards to every single Earlham family.
To Lillie’s astonishment, however, the donor did not just end up giving a single gift card to every household—he ended up giving away $50 gift cards for each local business to every Earlham residence.
In total, the anonymous benefactor bought more than $27,000 worth of gift cards from the three businesses.
Upon confirming the purchases with the three businesses, Lillie said that he immediately broke down in tears.
“[There are] bad things that have been happening,” he told the Des Moines Register. “As the mayor of a small town, making the decision to close our community centers and city hall and our library and all of the other bad decisions that we’ve been forced to make—and then here’s this really great thing. It just tore down my walls.”
“Financially, it’s one of the biggest things that’s ever happened to this small town,” he added.
For a week, Lillie kept the initiative a secret. Then earlier this month, hundreds of town residents were stunned to find $150 worth of gift cards sitting in their mailbox.
Trostel’s Broken Ranch owner Jennifer Trostel told CNN that her business may not have been able to survive the coronavirus shutdowns if it had not been for the donation.
“It gave us hope,” she said. “To be able to pay our bills and know that it’s OK, we don’t have to close our doors forever. We’ll be here when this is over. I don’t think we could be able to say that without the donation.”
Mayor Lillie now hopes that the story’s publicity will help to convey his gratitude towards the anonymous benefactor—although when CNN asked Lillie what he would say to the benefactor if he had the chance to meet them, the mayor simply said he “couldn’t find the words.”
“I would tell them thank you 549 times,” Lillie told the news outlet. “It would be like meeting a hero.”