Everybody in Earlham, Iowa, much like everyone in the world, is feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Needless to say, the economy in the small town 30 miles west of Des Moines (pop. 1450) has taken a serious hit.
In a brilliant act of generosity, an anonymous donor was able to stimulate the economy and inspire hope by providing each Earlham household with three gift cards to local businesses, totaling $150 in food.
On March 26, Earlham Mayor Jeff Lillie took a call from a friend who connected him with a donor looking to inject money into the town’s economy.
To begin with, the anonymous donor agreed to buy 100 gift cards from three local businesses, but just one hour later, they raised their offer to 250 gift cards. An hour after that, the mayor and mystery caller thought they’d settled at 500 gift cards.
“I said to him, at 500, you’re darn near giving a gift card to every single household in Earlham,” Lillie said. “When I told him there were 549 households in town, he said ‘Done.’ And that was it. I was ecstatic because it made sure everyone would get a card.”
The mayor still doesn’t know who this person is. And what Lillie also didn’t know is that the donor intended to buy 549 gift cards from each of the three local businesses, 1647 gift cards, all purchased for a total of $82,350.
The three businesses, West Side Bar and Grille, Hometown Market, and Trostel’s Broken Branch each received more than $27,000.
Lillie kept the plan a secret until a week later when an envelope with three $50 gift cards had been delivered to every mailbox in Earlham.
He said that upon closing the deal, he was “completely overwhelmed” and immediately broke into tears.
“It came at the end of a couple really hard weeks,” Lillie told CNN. “I remember going home and walking through the front door, and I couldn’t speak for a minute. I was just crying like a baby, and my little boy saw me and wrapped around my leg and said, ‘Daddy what’s wrong?’ And eventually I was able to choke it out: ‘Buddy, right now, for once, nothing’s wrong.'”
One of the establishments included in the stimulus is restaurant and coffee shop Trostel’s Broken Branch. The eatery had been set to open just days before nonessential businesses were ordered to close on March 17.
Trostel’s co-owner, Jennifer Trostel, was shocked when Lillie called to have her and her husband and co-owner, Troy, prepare the 549 gift cards. The restaurant was so new, Trostel had to order gift certificates on Amazon because they didn’t have any yet.
Other restaurants were able to transition to take out only operations, but according to Troy Trostel they were completely “unprepared” to make that move.
Had it not been for the donation, Jennifer Trostel feels their restaurant wouldn’t even have a shot at surviving the coronavirus pandemic. “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.”
Lillie still doesn’t know who the donor is, but if he could meet them he says he would, “tell them ‘thank you’ 549 times.”
“It would be like meeting a hero.”
Earlham residents who will not use or would like to donate their gift cards are able to bring them to City Hall where they will be redistributed to families in the Earlham Community School District.
“Nobody has a lot to smile about the last few weeks, and this is definitely something to smile about,” Lillie told the Des Moines Register.
“There’s a lot of families that $150 isn’t going to be a game-changer, but it’s still something to make you feel good that there’s good people in the world that are doing good things. It gives you some hope.”