RIVER FALLS — It started with a Halloween trick when someone walked off Saturday, Oct. 31, with a donation box set up at the West Wind Supper Club, but ended with a treat after an online fundraiser in response to the theft raised $1,200 for a local nonprofit.

“It’s not surprising to me that the folks of River Falls stepped up and helped in the ways that they have,” said Shelly Smith, executive director of social services provider Our Neighbors’ Place.

What transpired was a tale about the power of community connections during a pandemic that is keeping people apart.

READ MORE: RF Community Theatre sets the stage, online | 4 things to know in the 2021-2022 River Falls budget

Lois Cernohous is a former West Wind employee and more recently a volunteer for Our Neighbors' Place. When COVID-19 hit, she used her sewing skills to make face masks for the community in exchange for free-will donations. A collection box was set up on a table at the West Wind with proceeds going to Our Neighbors’ Place’s backpack program, which provides nearly a hundred River Falls School District students with food on the weekends.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“She has been sewing up a storm,” Smith said of Cernohous, thanking her for all the work. “She goes out and finds the most fun fabric — something that appeals to everybody.”

Cernohous retired from the West Wind four years ago. She said at first it was fun having more free time, but soon she was looking for ways to keep productive.

“Then when all this COVID-19 thing started, I started making masks for our family and friends,” Cernohous said. That led to her asking West Wind owner Tony Leone about giving out masks at the restaurant, to which he generously agreed.

“I was all about it,” Leone said of the request. “River Falls has supported the West Wind for a long time ... and so anything we can do to help, it’s a no-brainer.”

The arrangement was a tremendous success, with Cernohous making thousands of masks throughout the pandemic. But when she went into the West Wind on Halloween, she said she was surprised to see the donation box missing.

“I was just like, ‘what in the world?’ she said.

Facebook post

The police were called and security footage reviewed. Later that afternoon the West Wind announced the theft on Facebook and asked the community for help with information about a man captured on camera taking the box.

The social media post attracted a different kind of help.

Enter Julie Draves, who was scanning Facebook when the West Wind post popped up on her feed. “Like many people these days, most of my social contact is online because of the pandemic,” Draves wrote in an email to the Star-Observer.

She said the comments to the post generally fell under two reactions: outrage, condemnation and mean-spiritedness on one end, and tolerance and positivity on the other. After it was suggested that someone should start a fundraiser to replace the stolen money, Draves, who said she has worked virtually for years and has a knack for technology, jumped on the idea and got the ball rolling with the first donation.

“Rather than react negatively, I thought this would be an opportunity for our community to act positively together to right a wrong,” she said. “I thought that was especially important now when we are so divided.”

She noted that donations spiked on Election Day, some coming from as far away as North Carolina and Kentucky.

Smith at Our Neighbors’ Place said the circumstances are unfortunate, but the incident has increased awareness of the organization and the services it provides.

People in a crisis may do things they wouldn’t do otherwise, Smith said, adding she hopes next time the man who took the donation box will reach out for help if feeling desperate.

Our Neighbors' Place Day Center at 122 West Johnson St. in River Falls provides basic needs assistance, including a public shower, kitchen, mailing address and volunteers to help with referrals and housing counseling. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
Our Neighbors' Place Day Center at 122 West Johnson St. in River Falls provides basic needs assistance, including a public shower, kitchen, mailing address and volunteers to help with referrals and housing counseling. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

Our Neighbors’ Place operates a day center at 122 West Johnson St., with a public shower, kitchen, mailing address and other necessities that can be taken for granted. The organization has three other main programs: backpacks of food for children, transitional housing services and the volunteer-run secondhand store The Closet.

For more information and donation needs, visit www.ourneighborsplace.org.

As far as the mask donations go, there's a new box at the West Wind — this time bolted to the table.

An outpouring of support

The $1,200 raised after the theft of the face mask donation box at the West Wind Supper Club wasn’t the only recent boost for River Falls-based Our Neighbors' Place. The social services provider also announced this month it was the recipient of a $25,000 State Farm Neighborhood Assist grant.

The organization was one of 40 recipients nationwide, whittled down from 2,000 submissions, executive director Shelly Smith said. The winners were determined by an online vote held Sept. 23-Oct. 2.

“I was thrilled just to make the top 200,” Smith said. “Once the voting started and we were staying up towards the top, I was dumbfounded. Like, wow, we actually have a chance to win this thing.”

Our Neighbors’ Place was nominated for the grant program by the Kristin Jepson Insurance Agency.