An anonymous donor spent over $82,000 on gift cards to help residents and small businesses in a small Iowa town stay afloat during financially straining times.
About 30 miles outside of Des Moines, Iowa, sits the town of Earlham. With a population of roughly 1,450 and 549 households, Earlham residents have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s a lot of hardship out there ― people are worried and hurting,” Earlham Mayor Jeff Lillie told The Washington Post.
But an anonymous donor stepped in to keep the town’s handful of businesses afloat by purchasing over $82,000 worth of gift cards, a surprise that Lillie, 40, struggled to keep a secret from citizens while the logistics smoothed out.
The donor offered to buy 549 gift cards from each of the town’s three main businesses: Hometown Market, the town’s sole grocery store; West Side Bar and Grille, a favorite restaurant; and Trostel’s Broken Branch, a brand-new eatery in town.
In total, the donor bought 1,647 gift cards, totaling $82,350. Each household in town received three gift cards by mail with $50 on each card.
Lillie told the Des Moines Register the kind gesture left him in tears.
“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,” he said.
After speaking with the three business owners, Lillie said he broke down, thinking of how many hearts would be encouraged by the donor’s generosity.
“I went home and when my wife looked at me, I started bawling,” Lillie told The Post. “I’m a working, blue-collar guy, and this just hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew how much this would mean to so many in our town.”
Assistant city clerk Amy Willem was also in on the secret, loading up the envelopes into large boxes to deliver to the post office.
“Like everyone, I’ve had to cut back a little,” Willem said, “and getting some takeout for dinner is a treat. To know that there’s somebody out there who wanted to anonymously help everyone in town just warmed my heart.”
Lillie still does not know who the donor is, but cannot hide his gratitude.
“Financially, it’s one of the biggest things that’s ever happened to this small town,” he told the Register.
“I can’t even describe the level of gratitude that I have for this person. I honestly don’t know what to say. I’m speechless,” he added in his interview with The Post.
The city invited residents to pay it forward by returning unneeded gift cards to city hall to be redistributed to Earlham Community School District residents who live just outside city limits.
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