It started with a nudge on Alexandria resident Kaylene Schultz’s heart.
She saw a post on Kent Kopp’s Facebook page about him losing sleep, worrying about his employees at Pike and Pint Grill in Alexandria.
Her first thought was to drive by and bring some tip money. She hadn’t gone out to eat or ordered takeout in a while, so she planned on bringing an envelope with some cash in it.
“Then I thought, ‘Well, goodness,’” Schultz said. “That’s gonna be two dollars a person, what’s that gonna do?”
Moving to plan B, she thought she could start a GoFundMe and label it “Community Tip Jar,” with a fundraising goal of $2,000.
“I called Kent up just to see if the idea had any legs, and I quickly discovered that the problem was just so much more significant than what I had even considered,” she said.
One of the biggest concerns Kopp expressed to Schultz was food security for employees, especially over the holidays.
“It just broke my heart,” Schultz said. “I can’t stomach that at all.”
The more restaurants she contacted in the area, the more Schultz realized how widespread the issue was and the common concerns present across many businesses.
Next, she reached out to Nicole Fernholz, director of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission, to get an idea of the number of restaurant employees.
Fernholz said around 985 are currently employed in Douglas County, but just three to six months ago, that number was closer to 1,200.
“Then, I just knew that we had some serious work to do,” Schultz said.
‘Couldn’t do it alone’
Schultz is the administrative person for the local nonprofit, Unity Foundation, and president Vern Anderson referred to Schultz as “the glue that holds the batter.”
The Unity Foundation is made up of about 15 board members of business men and women from the community who have a passion for their faith and community impact.
Schultz called Anderson with the idea of helping struggling businesses, particularly restaurant employees, and asked if it would be possible to raise funds through the Unity Foundation to support those workers.
“As I was really chewing on the number that Nicole had given me and was thinking about what to do, I just knew I couldn’t do it alone,” Schultz said.
She contacted a few board members about it the day before their monthly meeting, and they suggested pitching it to the whole board.
When Schultz brought up her fundraising goal of $8,700 to divvy out to 350 employees, the board members told her to get back to them with a “real” number.
“I was so stunned and I was nervous because I didn’t wake up the day before thinking I was gonna do this,” Schultz said.
After she thought about it some more, she increased the number to 500 restaurant employees and $16,000.
The executive committee met and told Schultz that they would do a dollar-for-dollar match up to $15,000. The board then reached out to larger businesses that were doing well to see if they’d be willing to help, and Anderson said they received a wave of positive responses.
“Kaylene really planted the seed, and we jumped on it,” Anderson said.
The adjusted, dollar-match fundraising goal was quickly exceeded, and within nine days, Schultz’s $40 tip idea turned into a $42,500 community-wide effort.
“God might have planted the seed in my heart, but it really was through the Unity Foundation that we were able to accomplish this,” Schultz said. “There’s no way I could have done it on my own.”
‘Such a God thing’
Aagard Group provided access to the former Kmart building as a temporary gift box packaging space.
All of the food needed to be transported to the Kmart building, so Schultz asked Alex Brick and Stone if they could borrow a forklift.
Since a volunteer from Aagard happened to be a certified forklift driver, Alex Brick and Stone delivered and returned the forklift for free.
“That’s just the kind of community that we’re in,” Schultz said.
Aagard also gave 1,000 boxes for food distribution use. The only problem was they weren’t folded up or ready to go.
Schultz called Shannan Randazzo with Northstar Christian Academy to ask if the students could help assemble boxes. A few hours later, they were released early from school and sent over as a service project.
“We had one week of school left, so I said whatever our guys could do to help, just say when and where,” Randazzo said.
The students were released Wednesday after lunch to do anything Schultz needed, from taping boxes together to helping transport more food to the Kmart building.
“It was amazing to see Kaylene really just respond to a prick in her heart,” Randazzo said. “And then boom, just this community from all different directions of Alexandria came together.”
Schultz estimated around 100 people showing up to volunteer at different points, from spouses of Unity Foundation members to friends, families and Bible study groups.
“It was just such a God thing,” Schultz said. “That’s the only way I can describe it.”
All the contributions from both individuals and businesses around Alexandria quickly accumulated.
Douglas Machine gave a financial donation and provided 10 cases of water bottles for all the volunteers helping put together the gift boxes, Thrivent showed up with coffee for volunteers and 500 T-shirts to include in the care packages and the local food shelf provided some of the perishable food items.
Schultz said they wanted to make sure the restaurant employees were also receiving protein, so the frozen food box contained a full turkey, a pound of hamburger and two large bags of vegetables from Henry’s Foods and Sysco. Elden’s and Lake Country Meats provided significant discounts, so every perishable food box also contained a $25 gift card to Elden’s and a $20 gift card to Lake Country Meats.
“People so care about what’s happening in our community that they were willing to drop anything and everything a week before Christmas to show up for the restaurant employees in this community,” Schultz said. “It just didn’t take any work at all. All I had to do was say what we were doing and they’re like, ‘We’re in.’”
Schultz wasn’t content with the amount of food in the boxes after they finished the first packaging night, so Unity Foundation board member Tim Cullen got on the phone with Ron’s Warehouse and had them deliver four pallets full of an additional 2,000 food items. Volunteers reopened the boxes they’d packed the night before and put in another four or five things.
“It’s so unifying when I see something like that happen,” Randazzo said. “There was this placed on all these different people’s heart at the same time, and everyone responded to it.”
‘Community steps up’
Within nine days, organizations and individuals around the Alexandria area helped fundraise, secure products, put together 1,000 boxes and distribute them to restaurants.
Each of the 500 restaurant employees received one box of non-perishable goods with gift cards and another box of frozen goods. The Unity Foundation also added a thank you note with some of their favorite Bible verses and the Christmas story written on it.
The care packages that weren’t picked up by restaurant owners were delivered by Tim Cullen and Vern Anderson. They traveled to the remaining list of restaurants, asking if they had any workers who could use the gift boxes.
“It was pretty moving,” Anderson said. “We were giving them something that they could bless their employees with.”
By 2:30 p.m. on the Friday before Christmas, 1,000 boxes full of food had been either picked up or delivered to their intended destinations.
“I am just numb,” a Pike and Pint Facebook post said, following the delivery of the care packages. “My staff is overwhelmed by the support of our community. In so many ways, whenever the days get dark for us all, this community steps up to help.”
Kent Kopp, owner of Pike and Pint, said he was amazed that a group of people and entities came together. Since there was such a quick turnaround, it surprised many of the recipients. For those who were worried about how to get food on the table over the holidays, he said there were some tears shed.
“It was a much-needed lift,” Kopp said. “I think they really felt like the community cares about them, and they weren’t forgotten. That did a lot for their spirits.”
‘Use every dollar’
Schultz said delivery day was emotional because she heard stories of employees debating which bills they were going to pay that month and one being evicted from their apartment.
At that point, she found herself wondering what $100 in food and gift cards could really do, but Schultz said the best she could hope for was that it freed up enough money to pay one extra bill.
A significant amount of the fundraising dollars came in after buying decisions were made, so Schultz said she plans to reach out and connect with restaurants they didn’t get to in the first round of care package deliveries and provide gift cards for those employees.
And her dream isn’t over. After helping out restaurant employees, Schultz wants to keep moving forward by supporting hotel and hospitality workers.
Next is the Holiday Inn, Arrowwood Resort and other businesses where workers were also affected by COVID-19 shutdowns.
“We just want to make sure that we use every dollar we got to get into the hands of the right people,” Schultz said.
As the Unity Foundation continues to look for ways to live out what they believe, Anderson said that includes serving and helping others.
“None of us probably understand or know exactly what it’s going to look like down the road,” Anderson said. “Our hope is being able to be a little bit of a bridge, particularly for these employees.”