She had a secret. And it was a secret that was going to change lives. It was going to impact her job and her community, and it was going to remind her that, at the end of the day, people really are good. 2020 has, in many cases, shown us the worst of humanity. So it would be easy to forget about the best of it. But when Jamie Loveall, Executive Director of the Natrona County Meals on Wheels opened that email in early December, she was quickly reminded of the good in people…even if she was a little skeptical at first.

“I got an email and I thought ‘Yeah, right’,” Loveall stated. “So, I kind of ignored it. But then, a couple days later, I got another email from a representative, asking me to call them and I thought ‘Well, what can a brief phone call hurt?’”

So she made a call, was given the news, and was told to keep it completely confidential. This had to be a secret until the time was right to reveal it.

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The secret in question was this: MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, was giving more than $4 billion to various charitable organizations within all 50 states, as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. $1.4 million of that was going to Natrona County Meals on Wheels.

Scott is a well-known philanthropist. As one of the richest women in the world, it would be easy for her to retreat into her castle on the mountain and look down on the villagers below. But in May of 2019, she made a pledge. A Giving Pledge.

“We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand,” she wrote in a letter that would serve as the mission statement for her organization. “In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”

It would be easy to read her letter and roll our eyes.  “Another billionaire feeling guilty and trying to get some publicity,” we might scoff. Except, when she wrote that her approach will “continue to be thoughtful,” she didn’t mean that as if to say “Look at how thoughtful I am for doing these good deeds.” What she meant was that every dollar she gave would be given with purpose. And if ever there was an organization with a purpose, it’s Meals on Wheels.

For decades, Meals on Wheels has been providing meals and companionship to seniors all across the country. Their mission is “to empower local community programs to improve the health and quality of life of the seniors they serve so that no one is left hungry or isolated.”

In Natrona County alone, Meals on Wheels has delivered over 206,000 meals this year. Due to COVID-19, that number is about an 11% increase to what they normally deliver on a given year, but the point is this: thousands of people depend on Meals on Wheels for nourishment and for peace of mind and heart. MacKenzie Scott knew this, which is why, when she and her team of advisors narrowed down a list of 6,490 organizations into, first, 822 and, then, to 384, Meals on Wheels was at the top of that list.

As part of her pledge, Scott donated $4,158,500,00 in four months, to be distributed among the 384 organizations that were carefully, thoughtfully, picked out. Natrona County Meals on Wheels was one of those organizations.

“It was pretty exciting,” Loveall said of the moment she found out this was, in fact, a legitimate offer. “I lost sleep, I lost weight. This is really going to be such a big thing for us. We have a $2.2 million budget, and only half of our budget is made up by grants from the federal and state government. So, with the economy the way it is right now, I was a little worried about the next couple of years. But with this money, it sure will take a load off of our minds, no doubt.”

But there was still that pesky secret she had to keep.

“The woman I spoke to told me that I needed to keep it completely confidential,” she said. “I couldn’t tell anybody about it until the press release came out. I didn’t even tell the board until it came time to give out our bank information. Then I finally told at least one other board member.”

Loveall said that once the funds hit their bank, the board will come together to discuss the best ways to utilize the money. They want to “do the right thing” with the money, Loveall said. And they will. Natrona County Meals on Wheels has been doing the right thing for years, which is why they were chosen for this gift in the first place.

“Hunger, food insecurity, is a big thing and it doesn’t matter what city, town or state we live in – people are hungry,” Loveall said. “So, to me, that means that what we do matters. We deliver food to 450, sometimes 460 clients a day. Sometimes more. But that means that 400 more people in our community have food on their table. To me, that’s the important part. Food is a basic need. Just like water, just like the air that we breathe. You can’t live without it. But it’s not just the food that we deliver. It’s that break from social isolation as well.”

COVID-19 has hit all of us hard. But it has, arguably, hit our seniors the hardest. Not only are they some of the most at-risk for the virus itself, they are also the ones being isolated the most. Holidays are being presented on Zoom calls. Human interaction consists of talking at a screen. And that’s only for those who actually even know how to operate said screen. For many of these people, their daily Meals on Wheels delivery is the highlight of their day.

Before COVID, volunteers would sometimes sit and chat for a while. These days, it’s a bit more difficult to do that, but a smile and wave through the window can still mean the world to somebody who rarely gets to see or speak with anybody. Meals on Wheels has always been about more than the titular “meal.” It’s a way to connect, and to remind people that they are not alone and there is always somebody thinking about them.

Which is why, perhaps, Meals on Wheels was one of the organizations chosen by Ms. Scott.

“These 384 carefully selected teams have dedicated their lives to helping others, working and volunteering and serving real people face-to-face at bedsides and tables, in prisons and courtrooms and classrooms, on streets and hospital wards and hotlines and frontlines of all types and sizes, day after day after day,” she wrote. “They help by delivering vital services, and also through the profound encouragement felt each time a person is seen, valued, and trusted by another human being. This kind of encouragement has a special power when it comes from a stranger, and it works its magic on everyone.”

Christmas is a time for magic. It’s a time for hope, for love, and for giving. The money that MacKenzie Scott gave to Natrona County Meals on Wheels was great. It was, no doubt, a game-changer for the next year or two. But that wasn’t the magic. The magic came from the acknowledgment of what Meals on Wheels does. It came from the recognition and support, not just from Ms. Scott, but, more importantly, from the community in which they serve.

“We couldn’t do what we do without our community,” Loveall said. “We absolutely wouldn’t be able to deliver our 500 to 700 meals a day without our volunteers. But day in and day out, we know that no matter what the weather is like, no matter how bad the wind flows, those meals will be delivered, thanks to our volunteers. And without the community, without the people in the community that believe in us, and in our cause, and in our mission, we also wouldn’t be able to do what we do. I just couldn’t even say ‘thank you’ enough to everybody involved; from the volunteers and the donors and the philanthropists such as MacKenzie Scott- it’s just all very heartwarming. I love my job.”

KEEP READING: 50 community resources supporting Americans financially impacted by COVID-19


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