Santa in April: Anonymous donor mails gift cards to every household in Iowa town

April 22, 2020

Some people have all the luck: Residents of a small town in Iowa found themselves to be $150 richer one morning in late March, when they opened their mailboxes and discovered gift cards addressed to their households, Goodnet reports.

Earlham is a small city—more like the size of a town, with a population of 1,450—many of whom know each other’s names, but haven’t seen each other in weeks due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

But they all feel a lot more connected again, now that an anonymous donor has given each family three $50 certificates to local food establishment—among them, West Side Bar and Grille, Hometown Market, and Trostel’s Broken Branch.

According to the  Des Moines Register, about a week earlier, Earlham Mayor Jeff Lillie received a phone call from a man who said he was representing a potential donor to the community who wished to remain anonymous.

The Register said that the man told the mayor that the donor wanted to pump up the local economy, which had been hard hit by the coronavirus, by purchasing 100 gift cards to a local grille and a grocery store. The mayor told the donor’s proxy that a new restaurant just opened before Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds ended dine-in-service and that it should also be included in this stimulus package.

This was agreed to and the donor upped the amount of gift cards to 250 one hour later—and then doubled it to 500 one hour after that.

“I said to him, at 500, you’re darn near giving a gift card to every single household in Earlham,” Lillie told CNN. “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.”

After ascertaining that the businesses agreed to come up with all the gift cards—which was no easy task, especially for a new eatery—it was a done deal. That meant that every household received three gift cards, totaling $82,350 for the town, with each local business receiving more than $27,000.

Trostel’s Broken Branch was so new that they didn’t even have gift cards yet. “We were in the middle of interviews for our employees, hiring some waitstaff and trying to get everything ready,” restaurant owner Jennifer Trostel told CNN. “Just about then, everything closed down. It hit right when we were going to open our restaurant.”

Trostel was unable to make the switch to take-out but now she knows that the restaurant will be able to open when the restrictions are lifted.

Lille told reporters that he was “completely overwhelmed” by this act of generosity. Especially since people in the town had lost their jobs and were struggling financially. “It came at the end of a couple really hard weeks.”

The major explained, “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.'”

The secret was kept by the mayor and the business owners so that it would be a complete surprise when the mail arrived according to the Register. The envelopes contained a letter that explained the situation along with the cards.

“That was the longest two days ever,” Lillie told the Register.

The city wants to pay this gift forward. If people do not need to use the gift cards, they can donate them to families in need by dropping them in the bill pay slot at city hall. The cards will be given to needy families in the local school district to distribute.

Research contact: @goodnet_org

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