Like every mayor across America, Jeff Lillie would like to know when life will return to normal — even in small ways — in Earlham, Iowa, population 1,450.

Lillie, 40, who works as a plumber when he isn’t taking care of Earlham city business, has watched as many in Earlham have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs during the covid-19 crisis, and he knows that many are struggling to pay the bills and keep their pantries full.

“There’s a lot of hardship out there ― people are worried and hurting,” he said. “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.”

Something very good happened in Earlham recently. Lillie was heading into the office when his cellphone rang just after 8 a.m. on March 26.

The unidentified person on the line told him he had heard from a man who wanted to pump some money into the local economy and help make life a little easier for the citizens of Lillie’s town, located about 30 miles outside Des Moines.

“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.’”

The benefactor’s friend called again.

The man told Lillie that he would like to pay for 250 gift cards instead of 100, so the mayor suggested that he add a new diner in town, Trostel’s Broken Branch.

Before Lillie could break down the arithmetic, the man phoned again, telling him the donor wanted to give away 500 gift cards worth $50 each.

“I told him, ‘Wow! That’s about one per household,’” said Lillie. “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.”

The generous gift giver then said he didn’t want to leave anyone out. And he said he didn’t want to split 549 cards among the three businesses.

Instead he said 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, and then mail three gift cards to every family in town so that each household would receive $150 in gift cards.

“I called the store and the restaurants to see if they could get hold of that many cards,” he said, “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."

So on March 31, once the gift cards had been purchased by the anonymous benefactor and stuffed into envelopes addressed to every household in Earlham, assistant city clerk Amy Willem loaded up two boxes and dropped them off at the post office.

Each envelope also contained a letter from Lillie, explaining that the cards weren’t a scam and telling anyone who didn’t need the cards to feel free to drop them off in the bill slot at city hall for distribution to families who belonged to the Earlham Community School District but lived outside the city limits.

“I was beyond excited for everyone to get their gift cards — I couldn't wait for Facebook to light up,” said Willem, 50, a single mom of three boys who works part-time at city hall and recently lost her second job as a steakhouse waitress in the nearby town of Waukee.

“Like everyone, I've had to cut back a little,” she 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."

Once the envelopes landed in mailboxes, the phones started ringing at city hall, Lillie said. “A lot of people really did want to pay it forward — we’ve had almost 50 cards come back so far,” he said.

Leslie Mineart, a single mother of two teenagers who works from home as a public health educator, was among those inspired to make a difference for somebody else. She donated her grocery store card because she figured that would have the most impact for someone who is unemployed, she said.

“It was such a nice surprise to find those cards in my mailbox that I knew I should pass that joy down to somebody else,” said Mineart, 43.

“In Iowa, we call it ‘Iowa Nice,’” she said.

Lillie said it was above and beyond.

“I don’t believe ‘thank you’ is a big enough word,” he said. “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.”

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