Growing up in Bloomfield in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember seeing empty coffee cans next to the cash registers in places like Ollie O’Briant’s drug store, Bill Tews’ coffee shop and Isham Pottorff’s gas station.
The cans had handwritten signs taped to the side — a common fundraising technique of the day.
Those simple solicitations were the go-to means of seeking donations to help a local family with their expenses from a serious medical setback or help victims of a house fire. The donations might go for new band uniforms for the high school or provide a financial boost for local Little League teams.
Brian Burnam had an “angel tree” in his family’s supermarket each Christmas for many years. It linked families needing a helping hand with shoppers who might contribute.
The coffee cans and gift tree were easy ways to connect beneficiaries with the kind-hearted, charitable spirit of people in the community. That spirit of helping others — friends, neighbors and even strangers — is one of the intangibles of living in rural Iowa that is still alive and well these days, despite disagreements that sometimes divide us.
But technology seems to have pushed the coffee can aside. In the process, though, the change has broadened the reach of that lend-a-hand spirit. The results often are stunning.
All of this comes to mind as people across the nation responded last week to the tragedy of Pieper Lewis of Des Moines. The homeless teenager was 15 when she fatally stabbed a 37-year-old man in 2020 after she said he raped her five times during a period when she was being prostituted by another man who had befriended her.
Lewis pleaded guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Last week, she was placed on probation for five years and was ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution to the dead man’s family.
The restitution obligation angered her former teacher, especially because of Lewis’ victimization as a foster child who had been kicked out of her last home and then was abused in sex-trafficking.
The teacher, Leland Schipper, did not reach for an empty coffee can. Instead, he set up an account on the GoFundMe website and posted a note explaining Lewis’ abuse and her current legal predicament.
“Pieper does not deserve to be financially burdened for the rest of her life because the state of Iowa wrote a law that fails to give judges any discretion as to how it is applied,” Schipper said on GoFundMe. “Pieper needs us now.”
Fifteen thousand people across Iowa and around the United States heard Schipper’s plea. By Sunday, $541,700 had been contributed — enough to satisfy her restitution debt and pay for a college education.
The success of this GoFundMe initiative is not a fluke.
Every day in cities large and small, people set up similar fundraising accounts in the hope of connecting with sympathetic souls who will help make a difficult task a bit easier to bear.
Unlike the coffee can method, which only makes a connection with prospective donors when they walked past the cash registers, GoFundMe solicitations have a reach that can stretch from border to border and beyond 24 hours a day.
That’s the way it as last March 5, when freak early season tornadoes tore a swath between Winterset and Chariton. Tragically, seven people died, and dozens of other lives were upended by widespread damage to homes and cars.
One of the haunting images of the storm’s toll was the charming family portrait of Michael and Kuri Bolger and their three young children. The photo showed the couple seated in the bed of an old pickup truck, with their kids peering through the truck’s rear window.
The Blue Springs, Mo., family was visiting Kuri’s parents in Winterset when the tornado struck. Everyone sought shelter in the home’s pantry, but Michael, Kinlee and Owen were killed, along with Kuri’s mother, Melissa Bazley.
Friends quickly established a GoFundMe account to help Kuri and her family. It would have taken a truckload of coffee cans to accommodate the donations — which came from 10,000 donors across the United States and ultimately reached $567,600.
The response to another family’s loss in the same storm brought tears, too. Jesse Theron Fisher of Chariton was camping south of there with his uncle, Garold Smith, at Red Haw State Park when the 170 mph winds hit. They were staying in the camper because their home had been damaged in a recent fire.
The two friends huddled together in the camper as the tornado passed overhead. Afterward, Smith crawled out of the rubble and called for his nephew.
“Then I found him laying on the ground,” Smith told KCCI a few days later. “Every time I close my eyes that’s all I can see. Why couldn’t I have went with him?”
Friends jumped in with a GoFundMe account that raised $26,400 to pay for Fisher’s funeral and provide money for Smith’s needs moving forward.
Anne Morgan of Bloomfield is one of those unsung heroes every community is blessed to have. The former educator has raised tens of thousands of dollars for college scholarships and untold other amounts for people who sometimes just need a helping hand.
She always gravitated to the traditional ways of raising money — until friends encouraged her to try GoFundMe when a family needed a financial assist for long-delayed home improvement work.
“I had to be convinced to set up a GoFundMe page,” she later posted. “I was told this was a better method to reach those away from Davis County and to reach a younger generation. Well, in a day’s time we received $955 towards our goal.”
Save those coffee cans for other uses. You can’t argue with success — or with the kindness of friends and strangers during times of adversity or special needs.