Brenda Hernandez Ramirez thought she might have to close the doors of her family's small-town Mexican restaurant for good when she was temporarily forced to shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With bills piling up and no income, “we weren’t prepared for the challenges that COVID-19 brought,” said Ramirez, who owns Taqueria Hernandez in Holyoke, Colo., population 2,313.
When she and her employees heard in late March that a Help Holyoke campaign had been started to assist small businesses, Ramirez said she felt grateful, thinking she might get a few hundred dollars to help pay her utilities.
Two months later, when Holyoke Chamber of Commerce Director Holly Ferguson stopped by with a check, Ramirez was shocked to learn that people in her farming community had donated their government stimulus checks and dipped into their bank accounts to raise $93,592 — enough to help every business in town affected by the shutdown.
In addition to about $2,000 to pay her restaurant bills, Ramirez also received smaller checks for each of her six employees.
"We were overwhelmed with emotion," said Ramirez, 24. "Feeling our community's support during the pandemic gave us the ambition to keep on going. I'm beyond thankful."
The Help Holyoke fund came about after Tom Bennett, president of the town’s First Pioneer National Bank, wondered whether people might be willing to part with the $1,200 stimulus checks that most had received from the federal government.
Even during normal times, it's not easy to run a business in a small town, he said.
“Because we’re a farming community, a lot of people were still working and didn’t really need those checks,” he said. “Having our restaurants, bars, salons, the gym and movie theater shut down was unprecedented. You start thinking, ‘What if that was me?’”
Bennett contacted Ferguson, Phillips County Economic Development Director Trisha Herman, and Brenda Brandt, publisher of the Holyoke Enterprise, and arranged a meeting at the newspaper’s office to talk about his idea to help save their downtown.
"We love our small town and wanted somebody to get the [stimulus] money who needed it more than we did," he said.
The group members quickly developed a plan: They would get out the word about Help Holyoke through the Enterprise, the local radio station, and social media, plus enlist high school students to help call everyone in town. Once the donations were collected, they would cut checks based on how many employees each business owner had to lay off.
Karen Ortner, a family and consumer sciences teacher at Holyoke High School, rounded up members of the Family Career and Community Leaders of America club she advises and put the teens to work calling every household in Holyoke.
“We split up the phone book with two other student organizations: the Future Business Leaders of America and the Future Farmers of America,” she said. “Almost everyone the kids called said they’d give what they could.”
Ortner said her FCCLA members also decided to donate, chipping in $2,000 they collected earlier in the year from the same businesses that were now in need of help.
"They'd helped us earn money to go to a national conference that's now canceled," said LorenJo Oberle, 17, vice president of the FCCLA club. "So it was good to see that we could donate that money back and help make a change in their lives.
“This is a supportive, tight-knit town,” said FCCLA president Amy Mackay, 17. “Everybody knows everybody and they knew exactly who that money would be going to in the end.”
Mackay learned a lesson about good karma when she also received a $500 check from the Help Holyoke campaign. The money helped make up for the wages she lost when she couldn't wait tables at the Skillet Grill.
“I was shocked — I didn’t expect the check at all,” she said. “I had to sit there and look at it for a minute. It’s amazing to see how that money came around.”
People who weren’t eligible to receive stimulus checks also pitched in to help keep Holyoke’s businesses afloat, chamber director Ferguson said.
“Some gave $10, some gave $100, and little kids came to my office to empty their piggy banks,” she said. “Everyone did what they could and showed overwhelming compassion.”
Located in northeastern Colorado near the Nebraska line, Holyoke has one stoplight and is primarily an agricultural community, producing wheat, corn, sugar beets and beans, Ferguson said.
"Of the 19 businesses that had to shut down, half of them are restaurants," she said. "So at the chamber, we also helped keep them going by delivering takeout to people. Uber Eats doesn't exist here. But 'Holyoke Eats' does."
Rich Cummings, owner of Blistie’s restaurant, appreciated the free delivery service — and the $3,000 check from the Help Holyoke campaign.
“I bought the restaurant in September, and six months later, we got closed down,” said Cummings, 54. “We still had a mortgage to pay and even with takeout, our sales were 10% to 15% what they once were. We didn’t know if we were going to survive.”
When he opened his check, delivered by Ferguson, he said he was speechless.
“I was shocked — it’s hard to quantify in words what it meant,” he said. “This is a wonderful little town.”
In addition to receiving about $3,500 from Help Holyoke, Veronica Marroquin, 44, who runs Veronica’s Hair and Nail Salon, also received checks from customers who wanted to pay for the haircuts they missed due to COVID-19, she said.