Anonymous benefactor donates $800,000 to fully fund food bank relocation

“I have a Christmas miracle at Thanksgiving.”

A local businessman last week stepped forward with an $800,000 donation to fully cover the costs of the Auburn Food Bank’s relocation to its new home in the remodeled former Sports Page Tavern in north Auburn.

In so doing, the generous benefactor, who prefers to remain anonymous, single-handedly lifted one enormous problem that had been pressing for months on the Food Bank, its executive director, and its hard working staff: the agency’s inability to move in to the nearly completed facility until the money it owed the contractor was paid.

”I am going to be able pay my debt, and I am going to be able to shake the hand of the contractor, and say thank you very much for your wonderful work,” said an elated Debbie Christian, who has been executive director of the Auburn Food Bank since 2006.

“I have a Christmas miracle at Thanksgiving,” Christian added.

Christian announced the news to her staff after she picked up the check on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

The food bank has been at 920 8th Place Northeast in the Burndale Housing Complex in north Auburn for decades, but it’s relocating because it’s in a small space without room to grow in a growing community. Indeed, the food bank has been maxed out of capacity for many years, Christian said, and the move will give it about five times as much space, with the capacity to receive larger donations of food and added room to serve more people.

Coming at a time of uncertainty in the economy, inflation, and high demand for food – on Friday of last week, the food bank marked a new record for asks – it held its annual Harvest Breakfast fundraiser earlier this month, hoping for the best. It received $45,000 in donations. A decent number, but not comparable with the previous year.

The agency doesn’t close its books until the end of this month because many people take home the envelopes after the breakfast or decide they’re going to go home and think about it, so more money will come in before the end of the month.

“We knew that the economy wouldn’t be good for us, and we’d be down some,” Christian said. “So, I was worried.”

Then, said Christian, on Monday of last week,“up pops” this businessman with his offer.

As Christian remembers what followed, she responded: “What?! You can’t do that!” to which the man replied that he didn’t know if he could, but he would go home and pray about it.

“He is a man of faith,” Christian said.

Tuesday the man asked more questions.

“An hour later I get a call back, and he says,’Yeah, I’m going to do this for you. I’m going to take care of all of it. I want to lift this from the food bank, and make sure you guys are able to move forward, and you don’t have to think about this any more.’”

Christian explained how she informed her staff.

“I wasn’t in the office much of the day, and then I had them all come to a staff meeting and get their phones out. I had taken a picture of the check. Of course I cropped it down so the name was gone, and the bank account number was gone,” Christian said.

“When they all had their phones out,” Christian continued, “I group-texted the picture of the check. And as I heard each phone ping, you could see the eyes get big, and the ‘click, click, click’ happening in their brains. Then it was, ‘Oh, my gosh, are you kidding?! Where did you get this?! How did this happen?!’”

Relocation has been a topic at the food bank for decades, said Christian, who has been involved with the agency for 23 years, 17 of them as its director, and six years before that as a member of the board.

“For 23 years, we have been talking about how some day we’re going to move. And that conversation happened way before I ever joined it: “Some day it has to happen, some day.”

While everyone worked and waited for that day, Christian continued, staff at the cramped facility in the Burndale Housing Comple, kept running into each other, beset not only by problems with warehousing space but by constant issues with old equipment, such as trying to figure out whether to fix an ailing freezer or give it up.

“So, the time came when we just had to pull the trigger and say, ‘We’re going to go forward.’ Thankfully, the family that owns the Sports Page Tavern mall was very receptive to the idea of this one-stop shop coming into the area, and gave us the go-ahead to lease it,” Christian said.

“I looked at the building a long time, trying to figure out whether it was going to be opened up for us, and then, when it was, it was, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is really happening. Now we’ve got something concrete here to really dream about and to try to get our heads wrapped around that.’”

And when will the food bank make the move?

“I’m trying not even to think about what day well be in there. There is still stuff to figure out, and a punch-list walk through, I really doubt that can be before the end off the year. We’ll see what January looks like.”

In the meantime, things are tight, and the work goes on.

A major part of the problem is that the agency’s donation stream has been down, so the money wasn’t there that would enable staff to go out and make a lot of purchases for the holidays.

“There’ll be less to give out, which is sad,” Christian said. “There’ll be enough meat, there’ll be enough vegetables. There’ll be enough cans of fruit. The rest of the stuff is going to be kind of a hodge-podge, probably.”

“We’ve got money to ensure we have turkeys and hams, so we’ll plug along, and hope that our clients all realize it’s been a tough year,” Christian said. “I think they’ve already seen that at the food bank. Today (Nov. 17) was a record-setting day. We had 180 families today. Last January we had 80 families, so it’s a huge jump. We’re seeing 165-to 170-families consistently. Prices are up everywhere. It’s something the entire community is feeling.”