Anonymous donor sends $150 in gift cards to every household in 1,400-person Iowa town

USA World

DES MOINES, Iowa – Residents in the town of Earlham, Indiana woke up Thursday, checked their mailboxes and found a gift. It wasn’t like Christmas had arrived, but it was close.

An anonymous donor surprised the town of about 1,400 that sits 30 minutes from downtown Des Moines by purchasing gift cards to three local businesses and arranging for the city to send them to every household.

In the midst of a global pandemic, that would be an act of kindness, no matter the amount on the cards. But the money can’t be ignored. Residents of the town’s 549 households received an envelope containing three $50 gift cards to West Side Bar and Grille, Hometown Market and Trostel’s Broken Branch. The cards added up to more than $82,000 spent by the donor between the three restaurants, or more than $27,000 each. 

It started with a March 26 call to Mayor Jeff Lillie from a man who said he was contacting Lillie on behalf of the donor. The man said the donor wanted to pump some money into the local economy and said the donor was willing to purchase 100 $50 gift cards to West Side Bar and Grille and Hometown Market, the local grocery store. 

That was great, Lillie said, but another restaurant had just started to open before Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered restaurants to end dine-in service, and he wanted them to be included. That restaurant was Trostel’s Broken Branch.

The go-between said that could be arranged, and the number of cards was upped to 250 and was split between the businesses. Then, over the course of the day, the man increased the number to 500. 

“That’s almost one per household,” Lillie told the man. The man asked how many cards they would need to hit that number. The number, Lillie said, was 549.

Lillie said he thought 549 cards split between the businesses was beyond generous. He couldn’t believe when the man told him the donor was buying 549 $50 cards at each of the three businesses.  

An anonymous Madison County donor purchased more than $82,000 worth of gift cards to three Earlham business to help the town during the pandemic. The purchase was enough to give three $50 gift cards to every household in the town.

The mayor immediately called the restaurants and the grocery store to see if it was possible for them to access that many cards. They said yes, and he broke down.

“(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.” 

For a week, he kept the secret from everyone but his family, the restaurants and his city staff that stuffed the envelopes, which included a letter explaining the situation. The envelopes were sent this past Tuesday and arrived on Thursday.

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

Jennifer Trostel, whose husband owns Trostel’s Broken Branch, was shocked when Lillie called and told the restaurant to have 549 gift cards ready. The restaurant is so new they didn’t have gift certificates yet — Trostel had to buy 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.”

She said the restaurant hadn’t hired a full staff yet and couldn’t sustain offering takeout. It was also too risky for her husband, who is diabetic, to continue interacting with people. She was worried about never being able to open the restaurant that had long been a dream of her and her husband’s.

“It just gave us hope,” she said.

The mayor owns his own small business, Randy Lillie Plumbing, Heating and Electrical, and knows business is slow. He said he hopes the cards help the businesses stay afloat and the residents worry a little less if they’ve been laid off or furloughed. 

“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.”

The city is already paying the gift forward. Lillie said if people do not want to use their gift cards or if they can’t for any reason, to drop the cards off in the bill pay slot of City Hall. The cards will then be given to families in the Earlham Community School District. 

Mindy Harskamp knows firsthand those cards could help people in the district. Harskamp is a counselor at Earlham Elementary. She said every year over the holidays, she helps distribute gifts and gift cards to families who need support. 

“I know for a fact this is going to impact a lot of people in a lot of positive ways,” she said.

She’s also excited to use the cards. She knew Thursday morning to expect a gift in her mailbox after she read about the donation in the community newspaper, so she sent her 11-year-old daughter to check the mail and get the surprise.

“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,” she said. 

Lillie still doesn’t know who the donor is, but said if he did and social distancing rules weren’t in place, he would give them a hug. 

“Financially, it’s one of the biggest things that’s ever happened to this small town,” he said.

Follow Sarah LeBlanc on Twitter: @TheSarahLeBlanc

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