A small Iowa town received a big surprise last week from an anonymous donor who shipped every household in town $150 worth of gift cards good at local small businesses.
All 549 households in the town of 1,400 people received three $50 gift cards, according to the Des Moines Register, one each for West Side Bar and Grille, Hometown Market and Trostel’s Broken Branch.
Collectively, the cards added up to $82,350, or $27,450 to each locally owned business.
Mayor Jeff Lillie was in on the secret.
On March 26, he was called by a man who said he was the go-between for a donor who wanted to buy 100 $50 gift cards to West Side Bar and Grille and Hometown Market, a local grocery store.
But Lillie did not want anyone left out, and noted that a restaurant called Trostel’s Broken Branch opened just before coronavirus-induced restrictions forced all restaurants to shut down dine-in services.
As discussions continued, the number of gift cards increased, until finally the go-between offered to send them to every household.
Lillie then needed to be sure that the local businesses could deal with that sudden influx of business. When they replied that they could, he said he broke down in tears.
“[There are] bad things that have been happening,” he said.
“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.”
Letters containing the cards were mailed March 31 with the help of city staff. Lillie then waited for the reaction.
“That was the longest two days ever,” Lillie said.
Jennifer Trostel, who’s married to the owner of Trostel’s Broken Branch, said the restaurant was so new it did not make its own gift cards and had to get them on Amazon.
“You couldn’t even believe what was happening,” she said. “You were so grateful you started to cry. You couldn’t believe that people would actually want to help you in such a huge way that you can’t even fathom that kind of help.”
The new venture had not even reached full staff when the closing order hit, and could not endure with take-out orders only.
“It just gave us hope,” she said.
“We’re just absolutely shocked and incredibly thankful that someone was willing to give a gift that gave back to not only the people in our community but the businesses,” Mindy Harskamp, a counselor at Earlham Elementary School, told the Register.
Lillie said that even more than the financial impact of the cards is the overriding message they send.
“Nobody has a lot to smile about the last few weeks, and this is definitely something to smile about,” he said.
“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.”
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