When a community is struggling, a real community comes together to support those who need a hand. Mercer Island has been acting as a village in its support of nonprofits and local businesses since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and now the Mercer Island Community Fund is working with partners to ensure those community efforts stay active.
Last week on April 15, the Mercer Island Community Fund (MICF) launched its WeLoveMI COVID-19 Relief campaign. The campaign has compiled a list of all nonprofit organizations and businesses needing donations on the Island, along with donation links. It’s hoped that residents will take the time to scan the list for an organization and business they appreciate and make a donation.
Efforts to gathers donations were already underway by multiple nonprofits on the Island, but the campaign adds more focus to the efforts.
“It definitely was piecemeal, and we were feeling like we were getting a lot of different emails from a lot of different campaigns from … organizations we know are suffering,” MICF president Erin Krawiec said. “We’re getting bombarded, and maybe it would be good to have them all in one place. And what would be better would be if we could somehow include the businesses.”
Before the campaign began, each donor would have to search for contact information or donation opportunities for his/her preferred recipient. With MICF’s list, it’s a one-stop-shop experience.
“If you come to our campaign, you can kind of get a better idea by looking at everything at once and kind of weigh out what the different causes are, and what’s important to you,” Krawiec said. “We tried to categorize the different nonprofits into cause categories so people can go to what their passion is about.”
In conceptualizing, the MICF board members realized that nonprofit organizations would be easy recipients for donations. Many already rely on donations to sustain their operations throughout the year, and they already have online donation tools set up. Donations to businesses was a more complicated conundrum.
For the businesses to be able to accept the donations, MICF had each business establish a GoFundMe page. The MICF campaign then lists the GoFundMe for the respective business.
“Without doing it this way — a business can’t just take a donation from an individual, so this legitimizes it. The campaign for the business can be categorized as a disaster relief campaign and then that business doesn’t have to pay tax on that money,” Krawiec said.
And the relief arrived not a moment too soon for Mercer Island small business owner Aron Penski of Kix & Spinz, a fitness focused business.
“After eight years of successful business — thank god I had a good background and good standing in the community — I decided to close down on March 16. It was becoming increasingly obvious I could not operate the business without fear,” Penski said.
Penski says he closed immediately and began seeking unemployment and small business loan options to mitigate the financial impacts to his business and his family. Unfortunately, he was met with few options.
“We were applying for all these things and the world was not quite ready for it,” Penski said.
Kix & Spinz is a one-man operation with only Penski teaching classes and running the business. His wife, Yaffa Penski, also runs a small business (Yaffa Grace and Co.) without any staff. Both were unable to collect unemployment benefits, nor were they able to get loans.
“We’ve kind of fallen through the cracks — and we were feeling pretty hopeless,” Penski said.
In order to have the best outreach possible, MICF had teamed up with the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce, and Jen McLellan’s International Entrepreneurship class at Mercer Island High School, among other partners.
The weekend of April 11, Penski received a call from Mercer Island chamber executive director Laurie Givan.
“I know of GoFundMe, and my wife and I had considered doing it eight years ago when we opened the business, but I hate asking for money. I like being treated as an equal an all of that — and I know a lot of that is probably in my head, but it’s just nothing I’ve ever wanted to do,” Penski said. “When Laurie presented that to us on Saturday evening, I had to wrestle with that for 24 hours, and then my wife and I said, ‘Let’s just go for it.’”
By Wednesday, April 15, apparently that worry had not only subsided, it had become elation.
“He was so excited to just see the energy, that somebody had taken the time to find his business and make a donation to his cause,” Givan said.
According to Krawiec, MICF was inspired to create its campaign after it heard about Seattle’s All In Seattle campaign — a similar effort on the other side of the lake.
“The idea evolved. We looked at the needs. One need was (to get) one campaign so we’re not all bombarded, and another (need) was to continue helping our businesses. From there, we came up with this,” Krawiec said. “At the same time, All In Seattle launched… and so we were looking at that as our model.”
From there, leadership teams convened including representatives from MIHS, the chamber, the Stroum Jewish Community Center and the city’s department of Youth and Family Services. Givan said she appreciated the concerted effort.
“Everybody, literally around the globe, is in this together… While there are lots of great resources out there that are just constantly opening up from many organizations around the United States and here locally, I think we just thought, let’s also bring together a force of just Mercer Island and just focus on Mercer Island,” Givan said. “I think that was a really powerful thing to take on and to be proud of.”
Neither Givan nor Krawiec are sure how the scope of WeLoveMI compares to past efforts on the Island during former challenging moments, but both agree it’s the biggest they’ve seen.
“Under my leadership role at the chamber of commerce, I would say this is the biggest I’ve ever experienced,” Givan said. “When we had our E Coli issue, that involved a lot of really big players in our community to come together and help our businesses and help our residents — that may have been as big… but in my tenure — which as been a little over three years — this is definitely the biggest effort to come together in the community and really work to support everyone on the Island as best as we can.”
Krawiec is convinced the response to COVID-19 is bigger than the E coli emergency of 2014, when the Island’s water system was tainted and the community endured months of impacts.
“(The E coli crisis) matches the scale of COVID if you think about the impact on all of our lives of COVID, and if you look at the economic impact to our community and the world, I think COVID is really creating a lot more havoc, and so I would say this is appropriately scaled,” Krawiec said. “There’s just so much more need at this point. We have nonprofits who are needing to raise $100,000 each, so I think in terms of scale, it definitely is larger.”
Bigger, smaller, the same — in the end, it’s subjective and only measures catastrophe against catastrophe. What’s important to Krawiec is the response MICF is receiving.
“We have had a really positive response,” Krawiec said. “The nonprofits jumped right on board. Within a couple days we had 12 businesses jump on board. And for the businesses to get on board, there’s actually a couple of steps… but I’ve actually been super impressed with how quickly people are understanding what we’re doing and acting to join us.”
Looking ahead, it may be a rallying point the community needs. The city recently announced that its summer events are canceled. That comes on the heels of several summer events seeing the ax last summer in the face of budget decisions.
“Our community was really gearing up to come together and have a big celebration this summer — MercerFest. It was going to be our 60th anniversary as a city… the plans were in the works. The community fund was involved in that along with other community leaders. And of course that can’t happen,” Krawiec said. “But it’s just really nice that we were able to pivot. Of course we would rather being doing MercerFest than raising money for COVID relief, but the fact that we were able to pivot so quickly and still come together and still have this sense of community is a really great part of this campaign.”
In a worldwide pandemic situation that has developed over weeks but has felt like months, looking ahead leaves uncertainty. Penski is concerned about what the future of his business will look like after the pandemic has eased and stay-home orders have lifted.
“There’s a lot of question marks with what it’s going to look like when it reopens. My business was built on personal training and group classes — the group classes are 15 to 20 people in a group class, and I don’t know what that’s going to look like when we reopen. That’s a good 60% of my revenue,” Penski said. “Whatever the state says, that’s going to have a huge effect on us in terms of revenue.”
To prepare for that eventuality, he is working on a cleaning procedure and reviewing his business model.
It’s a difficult situation for the Penski family — there’s a lot left to decide about the business and when it reopens, but he doesn’t wonder about his decision to participate in the campaign.
“If I had made the decision not to go ahead with this… this could be our biggest loan right here, or money maker. I came very close to passing that up because I don’t feel comfortable asking for things,” he said. “Pretty wild.”
For the lifelong Islander, the support he has received already from the WeLoveMI campaign has reinforced his sense of community.
“It’s unreal. I thought I was really entrenched in this community being a business owner and being a part of the Boys and Girls Club board and all of that, but now it’s like, wow, these people are just giving us their money to stay open — that is incredible,” Penski said. “We’re just humbled and appreciative, and we love this community so much. And the fact that now, because of this help we might be able to stay here and reopen a business that has meant so much to this community… I’m at a loss for words.”
For more information about the WeLoveMI campaign, or to donate to local nonprofits or businesses go online to www.welovemi.org.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The spelling of Penski was corrected in this story.