Businesses in the town of Earlham, about 30 miles west of Des Moines, are feeling the pinch of the coronavirus pandemic, as are businesses in communities all across the country. What's more, many residents of the town are enduring financial hardship due to the economic crisis the pandemic has wrought.
An anonymous donor decided that two problems could be solved at once. Specifically, he reasoned that if the residents of the town had gift cards, they could buy food. And if those gift cards came from local Earlham businesses, then the donor would be pumping tens of thousands of dollars into the town's economy.
Mayor Jeff Lillie says that he got a phone call saying that an anonymous donor wanted to purchased 100 gift cards, from three local businesses, and give them to residents of the town. Then Lillie got another call; the donor had changed his mind, and the number was up to 250. Then it was 500.
"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."
In fact, the donor didn't just buy 549 gift cards. He bought 549 of them from each of three local businesses, for a total of 1,647 cards. That means that each household in Earlham got three $50 cards good at local shops.
Those three shops are restaurant West Side Bar and Grille, grocery store Hometown Market, and restaurant/coffee shop Trostel's Broken Branch.
The anonymous donor spent $82,350, money which will be injected right back into Earlham's economy, rather than sent to big, multistate corporations such as Walmart or Amazon.
Lillie describes what he went though the day he realized the people of his town were getting the big donation.
"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,'" he said.
And as for what he would do if the mayor ever met the anonymous donor?
"I would tell them thank you 549 times," he said.