Auburn Reporter’s Person of the Year is anonymous

Local businessman donates $800,000 to save Auburn Food Bank.

He is unlike any other person this publication has honored before.

What sets this man apart is that only he himself and a few others know who he is. And none of those people are talking. So, the Auburn Reporter has no photo of him to show you, and what he said, we only have second-hand via the one person who heard his words.

He did not do what he did for personal self-aggrandizement and self-congratulation, which are among the diseases of the age. He said he did not want his name to be known. As a professed man of faith, his good deed was ultimately between himself and his God, and he followed the advice Jesus proffered in Matthew 6:1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

But people at the Auburn Food Bank, and more important, countless people out in the community, will breathe easier because he lived — even if they never know his name.

We are talking about the local businessman who stepped forward just before Thanksgiving with an astounding $800,000 donation to fully cover the costs of the Auburn Food Bank’s relocation to its new home in the former Sports Page Tavern in north Auburn.

In so doing, the generous benefactor single-handedly lifted the 10,000-pound gorilla that had been pressing down for months on the back of the food bank, its executive director, and its hard working staff and volunteers — the agency’s inability to move from its cramped home in the Auburndale complex on I Street Northeast to the still-to-be completed, expanded facility at the former Sports Page Tavern, until the money the agency owed its contractor to complete the job was paid.

An elated Debbie Christian, who has been executive director of the Auburn Food Bank since 2006, could hardly believe it herself. She called it her “Christmas miracle at Thanksgiving.”

For all of that, the Auburn Reporter has named this unnamed businessman its 2023 Person of the Year.

“People in the community told me this helped to restore their faith in humanity, and we will be forever grateful for the change in our lives going forward into the future,” Christian said this week. “The gentleman who gave that money is selfless, gracious, and humble. He did not want to be recognized for what he gave. He lives a simple life of faith. He takes care of his family and his friends and his business.”

The food bank has been at 920 8th Place NE 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, 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 that week, the food bank marked a new record for asks — the agency 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 November because many people take home envelopes after the breakfast or decide they’re going to go home and think about it, so more money would 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 that memorable 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.

The next day, the man returned with 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 told 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 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.

”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.”

And when will the food bank make the move?

“We don’t have a date for that to be done, but we are working with our contractor on that,” Christian said this week.