Katie Wallace has been delivering envelopes with money and an inspirational message from an anonymous Portland couple to people in need. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The first couple of times Katie Wallace returned home from making her deliveries, she cried.

These weren’t typical tears – neither happy nor sad – nor were they typical deliveries.

Wallace, 41, has spent the last six weeks delivering envelopes with $100 bills and a note of encouragement to needy individuals and families in the Greater Portland area. So far she has distributed over $10,000. The money and the notes are provided by a Portland couple who wish to remain anonymous.

“It’s not about us,” said the anonymous husband.

But it is about giving back, about looking out for others during this coronavirus pandemic. And that’s what Wallace has done for much of her life. She created a snack pantry at her daughter’s Portland elementary school years ago for children who had nothing to eat at snack time. She later founded the Locker Project, which works with the Good Shepherd Food Bank to provide food for food-insecure families.

Wallace is proud of her previous work, but delivering hope in an envelope to those affected by the pandemic or simply in need is much more personal. Thus, the tears.

“I cried every single day,” said Wallace, whose daughter Ava Jolley just finished her freshman year at Portland High School. “I worked as a server for almost 20 years, so I was kind of dead inside and then these experiences … they’re really positive, but a lot of these people live in poverty outside of COVID-19.

“So this is good work, but it doesn’t solve the problem. And it is heartbreaking. Almost every recipient wants to tell me their story. And it’s hard.”

Wallace now works as a legal assistant at Toole, Powers and Griffin, a law firm that specializes in elder law and estate planning in Portland’s Old Port. But in her free time, she is still helping others. Through her connections made over the years, Wallace is often notified when a family leaves a homeless shelter to move into an apartment. She then contacts them, finds out what they need (furniture, blankets, clothes, food, etc.) and crowdsources to find the items, which she delivers.

It was through this activity that, five or six years ago, she met the anonymous donors, who have lived in Portland for about 25 years. She needed furniture, they had furniture. And they helped deliver it. Over the years, they have made multiple deliveries together.

“We bonded over sweat,” said Wallace.

An anonymous Portland couple has been providing cash and a handwritten note for people in need. Why are they giving cash to individuals instead of, say, donating money to social service agencies? “If you go to a food bank, you get what they want you to have. But if you have your own money, you can get what you feel you need,” says the husband. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When the pandemic hit, the Portland couple thought about ways they could help. They decided the money was ideal. “We had an opportunity to do something,” said the husband. “I think, in as much as nonprofits are invaluable to helping people weather this crisis, there’s a lot to giving people the agency to be able to have some say in what they do and what they provide for themselves.

“If you go to a food bank, you get what they want you to have. But if you have your own money, you can get what you feel you need. That’s important for everybody, but especially immigrant families, who might want to get some food that they’re familiar with. It provides comfort. It’s also important for people to be given some direct hand in their own affairs.”

With the money comes a hand-written note, both tucked into vintage airmail envelopes.

“We came up with what we wanted to say,” said the anonymous wife. “It was, ‘We hope that this will help in some small way in these scary times.’ We wanted them to know that they weren’t alone and that people were thinking of them.”

And, said the husband, “that they were important.”

The next step was finding someone to deliver the envelopes. Since they wanted to remain anonymous, the couple knew they couldn’t. But they knew Wallace was the ideal person to do it. So they asked. “I was honored,” she said.

They gave her $6,000 and gave her complete discretion on how to distribute it, with no strings attached. That meant, if Wallace came across people who needed more than $100, she could give them more. It also meant she determined who got the money.

Wallace, who receives nothing for her part in this, contacted a social worker at Portland High, who provided her with names of families in need. She then used her contacts in the local hospitality scene to find out who had been laid off because of the pandemic.

“Portland is a small, tight-knit community,” said Wallace. “Everyone is looking out for everyone else. When this happened, when COVID hit, the people hardest hit were the people who didn’t have the biggest safety net. There’s a single mom, of course, who needed help. There were bartenders and artists. Sometimes, a recipient would tip me off to someone else, someone who was struggling.”

The couple was worried about Wallace delivering the envelopes. But she takes every precaution. She wears a mask and generally stays outside.

After she went through the $6,000, the couple asked her if she would do it again. So she did. Wallace reached out to social workers at Deering High and Casco Bay High to find families in need there as well. She said she has about $1,800 remaining to distribute.

“When we first started, I encountered a lot of pride,” she said.  “These were people who were not used to not being able to make ends meet. It was hard for people to accept. Sometimes, someone needed $200 to make rent. Most were, ‘One hundred is great.’ We tried to give people what they needed. There was a family of seven at a shelter. I gave them $300.

“And when the first round was done, I came back a couple of weeks later and gave them more.  I know it doesn’t solve all the problems, but it gave them groceries for a week or two.”

The recipients are, indeed,  grateful to receive the help.

George Monga, an 18-year-old from Zambia who has been in Portland for about 18 months, was laid off from his job as a dishwasher at a Portland restaurant. He will be a senior next fall at Portland High, but the money he earned was vital to his family.

“Receiving that money means a lot,” he said. “It’s helping us buy food when we needed some.”

When asked what he would say to the anonymous donors, Monga said, “I would really thank them a lot because they really helped me and my family find something we did not have. They saved us. And I am really grateful. Being left alone, struggling in a pandemic, it means a lot to people who have nothing in the house.”

The couple isn’t sure they will continue after the second round of envelopes is distributed.

“I think we have to sit back and take stock a bit,” said the husband. “But we hope this is something that will spur others to do something similar.”

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