On March 26, Earlham Mayor Jeff Lillie received a call bearing unexpected good news. A friend told him there was a donor interested in donating $150 worth of gift cards for food to the small town’s residents.
Earlham, Iowa, has a population of 1,450 and is 30 miles west of Des Moines. The anonymous donor first told Lillie’s friend that they would buy 100 gift cards from three local businesses. An hour later, the mayor’s friend called again and said the donor was raising the number to 250. After another hour, they bumped the total up to 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.”
What the mayor didn’t know was this: the donor wasn’t going to donate only 549 cards; rather, they were buying 549 gift cards from each of the three local businesses. They spent a total of $82,350, which means the establishments received over $27,000 each.
Exactly a week later, the residents of Earlham woke to a wonderful surprise. Each of their mailboxes had an envelope bearing a letter from the city and three $50 gift cards to these food establishments: Hometown Market, a grocery store, Trostel’s Broken Branch, a restaurant and coffee shop, and West Side Bar and Grille.
The mayor said he felt “completely overwhelmed” by the generous donation. He knew several people in his town who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic. He said the gift cards gave the community a reason to smile amid these challenging times.
“I remember going home and walking through the front door, and I couldn’t speak for a minute,” Lillie said. “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.’”
Not only did the donations benefit struggling residents, but it also saved a new restaurant from financial trouble. Trostel’s Broken Branch, an eatery involved in the gift cards, was set to open their doors just days before Governor Kim Reynolds implemented a shut down of all non-essential establishments on March 17.
Jennifer Trostel, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Troy, told CNN they were already interviewing potential employees and hiring some waitstaff when it happened. While other restaurants smoothly transitioned to takeout only, she said they weren’t capable of doing the same. They didn’t have any staff or a running computer system to receive orders and payments. They thought they were stuck at a dead end.
So when Jennifer got the phone call about the anonymous donor and their donation, she felt both shocked and relieved.
“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.”
Earlham residents who wouldn’t be needing or using the cards can drop them off at a bill pay slot at City Hall. They would be distributed to the families who need it the most.
The town mayor said he wouldn’t even know what to tell the unnamed donor if he ever gets to meet them. “I would tell them thank you 549 times,” Lillie said. “It would be like meeting a hero.”
Watch Mayor Jeff Lillie’s interview with KCCI in the video below.