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‘Pay it forward’ wall an example of neighbors and strangers getting through COVID-19 crisis together

The human touch is how we’ve always made it through crisis. And COVID-19’s no different.

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Tickets for the “pay it forward” wall at Cafe VilleBella in Ogden.

Kayden Petersen-Craig

Ogden’s Cafe VilleBella has customers it will never see — even curbside. It has some truly loyal customers who’ll never taste its breakfast specials. And customers, too, who’ll never contribute a dime to the money in the till.

The cafe is home during COVID-19 to a “pay it forward” wall, which means you can call up and order from the menu and pay for a meal with no expectation of ever receiving that meal. Instead, the items you choose are written on the little green and white pad that servers seem to carry in every eatery in the universe. And then the slip will be torn off and posted so that someone who’s down on their luck can come in and have a meal on the goodwill of a stranger.

Kayden Petersen-Craig, who owns the cafe, told me it started as an effort to provide some lunch to kids who might not eat well with school closed down. It’s expanded to include all kinds of people with needs. Cafe VilleBella and its supporters help somewhere between 30 and 100 people every single day.

There are so many down on their luck right now, in the midst of a pandemic that has shuttered some businesses and forced even more to downsize, some cutting hours or staff or both. Even some folks lucky enough to remain employed have seen hours cut from 40 to 32 or less, which has economic pain attached.

Meanwhile, it feels like housing and food costs just keep rising and a lot of folks say they’re skating dangerously close to some kind of economic disaster.

But ...

It has been both heartening and enlightening to see that so many people are helping each other in ways that lessen fear and hurt.

I’ve been looking at social media groups born in the pandemic to find people in need and match them to people who have what’s needed. On the Wasatch Front, where I am, for example, I watch Salt Lake C0VID-19 Mutual Aid, a public group on Facebook where people can ask for or offer help, advice, encouragement. It’s lovely, but not unique. There are lots of similar pages supporting folks in this and other communities. Nor are the needs presented there unique.

I write sometimes about the irritations that arise from Facebook and other social media. But there’s something pretty spectacular playing online right now that makes me happy about the human race.

I saw a woman lament online that she lacks money to get diapers before payday. The answer was fast: “What size?” and “How can I get them to you?”

People are helping each other in the ways that they can, whether hiring a guy to do some yard work because he’s trying to get home to his family somewhere else, or offering leads on affordable rental properties or programs that might offer more substantial help. People have given each other everything from toilet paper (during that weird panic-buying phase) to distilled water and hand sanitizer.

One woman at an apartment that houses lower-income people was worried because so many of her neighbors didn’t have masks or a way to get them. Someone reading the post offered to make them. “How many?” was all she asked.

Such online communities have become a place not only to plea, “Please help me,” but places where those who run professional programs designed to help can tell others about their services.

I know some fear they’ll be scammed or help someone who doesn’t really need it. My thought on that has always been: That’s on the scammer, not on me. If someone cheats me, it blots their soul, not mine. I can afford to lose what I can afford to give. I can’t afford to not do my part for others.

Mostly, these are a reminder that we all have something to give: food, advice, affection, encouragement. We can each help others in little ways that add up to something really big.

Franky, I don’t think those receiving what we give actually benefit the most.