Since the first of this year, owner Mary Britain and her staff have been encouraging patrons to buy small, stylized rubber ducks for $3, with the proceeds going to charities.
Since launching the project in January, Auntie M’s Diner has raised more than $2,000 for causes ranging from St. Jude Children’s Hospital and Doctors Without Borders, to Florence’s own public library and community garden.
Britain said the fundraising push was inspired by a discouraging news report.
Waitress Rene Starkey inspired the strategy.
“Rene’s always had this fascination with rubber duckies, so I got it in my head, why couldn’t we sell rubber duckies for charity?” Britain said. “Marion’s the ‘Rhino Capital of the World,’ we decided we would be the ‘Rubber Duckie Capital of the World.’”
For the initial month, Britain and her team decided to pick the American Heart Association and Toys For Tots as their causes. They collected $212.
In the ensuing months, they raised $104 for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, $115 for disabled veterans through the county’s American Legions and Legion Riders, $86 for Doctors Without Borders, $85 for Feed the Children and $100 each for the local library and community garden.
“They’ve all drawn good donations,” Britain said. “We post on the wall what each one made.”
Biggest response yet
“It started because they were told they would have to put in a handicap lift,” Britain said about the pool. “Well, that’s now been rescinded by the government, but we’re a small town with an old pool. It requires a lot of care.
“There’s been talk for several years about maybe having to close it, and we said no,” she added. “The kids have got to have something in the summer to keep them out of trouble. So we decided to take it upon ourselves to save it.”
During the first week of June, Starkey announced she would donate all her tips from June 6 to the cause.
Auntie M’s team promoted her challenge through social media as well as the city newsletter that is sent out with the monthly utility bill.
Starkey thought the gesture might raise $100 for the cause—instead it raised $600.
“Everybody asks if I make that every day,” Starkey said with a laugh. “Believe me, I don’t. It was just one day for me, but it was the community that was amazing. When we were up to that amount of money, it was an awesome feeling.”
Though Starkey downplays the personal generosity of her offer, Britain does not.
“Waitresses don’t make a lot of money, and so their tips are their money,” Britain said. “For someone to give up an entire day, it’s rough. Rene has a house in Cedar Point, but she had to move to town because it was too many miles back and forth. Now she’s paying taxes over there and she rents a place here.”
Jo Harber is one of the diner’s many regular customers. She has bought one of every stylized duck that’s been offered since the campaign began in January. For the pool, she brought in $128.30 in change.
“I didn’t do any more than anybody else—I just happened to have it all piled up,” Harber said modestly, then added with a laugh: “Me giving my jar of money was because I was too lazy to walk over to the bank and get cash.”
On a serious note, Harber said the pool is important for the community and her family, which includes 69 grandkids.
“My grandkids look forward every summer to coming and spending time with grandma and going swimming,” Harber said.
Britain said diner customers—both regulars and first timers—have been quick to chip in.
“We’ve had travelers come through here and they just love it—and they donate,” she said. “They jump right in and throw in money.”
Hearts for sharing
Generosity seems inherent in the business plan at Auntie M’s Diner. For the owner, staff and many of its customers, upbringing has a lot to do with it.
“We were raised poor—we did without,” Britain said about her own childhood. “After I left home I had a lot of poor times, but if I can give it, I’ll give it.”
Added Harber, “When I gave my tip, I’ve been that single mom, I’ve been that young girl. When people have given to you, you remember that.”
Britain has been owner of the diner only since January 2011. She had owned a restaurant years earlier, but had been working at an industry job in Hesston for 18 years prior to buying the small diner and renaming it Auntie M’s.
Then, six months into the venture, Britain discovered she had cancer.
“So far so good,” she says about her health battle. “I’m just plugging along. We take it a day at a time and see how it goes.”
Life’s challenges have affected her outlook.
“You see so many young people these days who just expect their parents to give it to them,” Britain said. “We always had to work for it, and work hard.
“I’ve always said I don’t mind giving someone a hand up, but not a hand out. We don’t do handouts here, we do hand-ups.”
“She got a good heart,” said Desirae Depler, who began waiting on tables at the diner when she was 14 years old. That was nine years ago.
“My parents didn’t have much money either, so I had to work for what I wanted,” she said. “People ask me why I’ve stayed here so long, and I tell them we meet new people every day.”
But no one stays a stranger for long at Auntie M’s.
“Ninety percent of the people that come in here aren’t customers, they’re our friends,” Britain said. “The other 10 percent are going to be our friends.
“We have family, we have friends and we have potential new friends because we’re constantly having travelers and tourists come in.”
When the situation warrants it, some of those travelers leave with a free meal, a bus ticket to their next destination—or both.
“The churches send us the drifters and the bums and the hobos, and we feed them,” Britain said as a matter of fact.
Offering a hand up brings its own rewards, she added.
“It makes you feel good. I believe we’re put on this earth for more than just doing for ourselves. If you don’t do for others, then there’s no sense in even being here.”
Caring and humor
Britain has tried to make Auntie M’s a place where caring, spiced with good humor and laughter, is the daily special.
“We solve all the problems of the world right here,” she said about the diner’s large center table. “It’s called the Liars Table.
“Actually, that used to be the Liars Table over there,” she added, gesturing to a smaller table nearby. “But we had so many of them in town we had to add another one. So we have two Liars Tables.”
Britain and her circle of friends and staff hope their recent effort to save the pool and support worthy causes can inspire their fellow citizens.
“In small towns, every time people want to do something, the thing they say is, ‘Oh, the town is dead, the town is dead,’” she said.
“I always tell them as long as the doors are open on this place, the town ain’t dead. And we’ve proved it. It’s not dead. People are still there, they still care, they’re still functioning.
“Yeah, we may be small, but we’re mighty,” she added. “We’re one little corner here in town. If we can do this, think what we could do if everybody worked together. We could do awesome things in this little town.”