December 24, 2020 | By Ben McBee
Among the things that we tend to take for granted, putting groceries on the conveyor belt and knowing we will soon have food in our bellies is probably high on the list. It’s a mundane task, but for many seniors who are unable to leave the house, it’s something that remains out of reach, to heartbreaking effect. But every year since 2003, during the week leading up to Thanksgiving, shoppers at New Seasons Market and other retailers could always add one last important item to their haul while checking out — a meal donation to seniors in need, through the Donate Dinner campaign.
The success of the fundraiser has depended greatly on the participation of compassionate volunteers: people like Osha Roller, who works as a mortgage loan officer, but has long held a personal interest in fighting childhood hunger. Five years ago, a neighbor invited her and her daughter Lily to help out Meals on Wheels People. “It was really just a natural fit to extend that and bring my daughter into it to see the impact that can be made,” she says. “It’s putting some of the lessons I try to teach her into action. Getting to spend that quality time together, we have a lot of fun doing it. She looks forward to it and was really disappointed that we weren’t able to do it this year.”
With the Covid-19 pandemic raging into the winter months, the outlook for this year’s Donate Dinner was somewhat gloomy. The fundraiser would be without the usual 1,500 or so volunteers, who otherwise would be front and center as shoppers entered the stores, smiling and handing out fliers to boost community engagement in such an important cause. Without those reinforcements, New Seasons employees knew they faced an uphill battle.
Safety protocols limited the number of people allowed in the stores. With staff members wearing masks, it became more difficult to have impactful conversations at the register, and many of the customers shifted to shopping online, meaning less opportunity to interact in person. “We had real concerns about doing such a big fundraiser in our stores in the middle of a pandemic, when there is a lot of hardship for everyone,” says New Seasons’ Philanthropy Coordinator Jennifer Gregorich. “But we had a couple customers reach out in advance of the fundraiser, asking if we were actually doing it. That was a great sign for us.”
Nevertheless, a bit of creativity was needed to save what’s become a cherished tradition. The event, previously referred to as “Five Days of Kindness” in their stores, grew to “Eight Days of Kindness” to balance the fact that people are shopping less frequently. On their website’s holiday hub, they included direct links to Meals on Wheels People’s site, as well as a chance to donate during online checkout. “One last thing we were able to do is make Meals on Wheels People our Gift It recipient, so people could donate their Neighbor Rewards dollars that they earn through shopping, to them,” says Gregorich. “We had to make it easier for customers to donate and hope that staff would rise to the occasion, which they really, truly did.”
At the Nyberg Rivers location in Tualatin, the team’s extra effort encouraged shoppers to donate by rounding up their purchase total to the nearest dollar at the register. Oftentimes, this led to additional giving – two, five or even ten dollars more. Together with her coworkers, Cece Harris, a Front End Lead at the store, was dedicated to cultivating an environment of excitement and heart, cheering and ringing a bell for every customer who donated, no matter the amount.
It was an emotional experience for all involved. “This was towards the end of the eighth day with maybe an hour left. I got onto the intercom and made an announcement that we were hoping to reach $16,000, and we had like $80 to go,” she explains. “Well, I was overcome with gratitude and started crying. One customer came up and said, ‘I don’t want her crying anymore, so I’m going to give $100.’” Their constant positivity and dedication was championship caliber in every sense of the word – Harris and co. ended up raising the most out of any store.
Though Meals on Wheels People’s goal for the entire campaign was realistically lowered, it quickly became clear, you can count on people to make a difference and uplift their neighbors if you provide a way. Another shopper at a different New Seasons donated two months worth of meals after chatting with the cashier and hearing more about the organization’s mission.
They couldn’t be present physically, but the impact of volunteers was still felt extensively; they utilized their virtual networks, spreading awareness with friends and family, and asking them to pass it along to their own connections.
Amid so much unpredictability, it’s nice to know some things haven’t changed. These new stories of good will and caring for one another will be added to familiar ones and kept alive for years to come. “Whenever we do Donate Dinner, it’s really cool to see people’s reactions to it,” explains Roller. “There are a lot of people who will stop and talk with you and they kind of light up and share a story about how Meals on Wheels People has impacted their lives. It’s just really important to a lot of people on a very personal level. ”