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Mystery donor spends $82,000 on gift cards and sends them to every house in Iowa town

The gift cards gave people in town a reason to smile and were "a way to tell them help is on the way," said the mayor.

Mystery donor spends $82,000 on gift cards and sends them to every house in Iowa town
Image Source: Getty Creative

A small town in Iowa recently received a heartwarming reason to smile after one anonymous donor decided to spread some hope amid the pandemic. Like most of the world, residents of the town of Earlham are currently sheltering in place and trying their best to stay positive while the deadly virus rages across the country and the economic downfall brought about by the outbreak threatens their sustenance. So when they woke up one morning to find gift cards worth $150 in the mail, it was like a comforting hug from a dear friend. One that gave them hope when they needed it the most.



It all began when Mayor Jeff Lillie received a call from an unidentified person on March 26, informing him of an anonymous donor who was interested in injecting money into the town's economy. Earlham, which has a population of 1,450, has been struggling in recent days after many residents were laid off or furloughed from their jobs due to the pandemic. "There’s a lot of hardship out there ― people are worried and hurting," Lillie told The Washington Post. "Because of the pandemic, we’ve been forced to close our community center and our library, and we’ve even shut the doors at city hall as a precaution. A lot of bad things have been happening here, just like anywhere."



So when the 40-year-old received the call about the anonymous donation, he could hardly believe it. "He told me that this guy was thinking of buying 100 $50 gift cards from our local grocery store — the Hometown Market — and to the West Side Bar and Grille, then having us give them away to people in need," Lillie recalled. "I said, 'Wow, what a great idea — that’s incredibly kind and generous.'" An hour later, the caller contacted the mayor again, telling him that the donor would like to pay for 250 gift cards instead of 100.



Upon hearing the unbelievable offer, Lillie suggested that the donor also consider including a new diner in town, Trostel’s Broken Branch, which was set to officially open its doors just days before Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered all nonessential businesses in the state to shut down. The man phoned again, this time telling him that the donor wanted to give away 500 gift cards worth $50 each. "I told him, 'Wow! That's about one per household. We have 549 residences in town, and I thought it was just incredible that they’d be divided among our only grocery store and our two restaurants, giving almost every household a chance to pick up a few extra groceries or treat their family to some takeout," said Lillie.



"I said to him, at 500, you're darn near giving a gift card to every single household in Earlham," he 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." But the donor wanted to even better. He told the mayor that he didn’t want to split 549 cards among the three businesses. Instead, he wanted Lillie to buy 549 gift cards from each of the three businesses, for a total of 1,647 gift cards, at a total cost of $82,350.


"I called the store and the restaurants to see if they could get hold of that many cards," Lillie revealed, "and when they told me they could, I lost it. I went home and when my wife looked at me, I started bawling. 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." Exactly one week later, on March 31, every household in Earlham woke up to an envelope containing a letter from the city and three $50 gift cards to West Side Bar and Grille, Hometown Market, a grocery store, and Trostel's Broken Branch.



The gift cards, Lillie said, gave people in town a reason to smile and were "a way to tell them help is on the way." Holding back tears, the mayor added, "It came at the end of a couple of really hard weeks. 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.'"


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