The original plan was to raise $2,000. Donnie Exelbierd would pocket $500, fair compensation for the loss of his beard, and donate the rest to charity. But, when the money raised rocketed past his goal in less than three days, he realized this was bigger than just him.
Exelbierd is the head bartender at Muse, a cozy restaurant and wine bar on Society Street where he's worked for 10 years. When his uncle started picking on him about his big, bushy beard, Exelbierd made him a deal.
“My uncle hated the beard,” Exlebierd laughs. “He was very upset about it, and he said, ‘Well, you need to shave.’ I said, ‘Maybe I’ll start a GoFundMe and donate the proceeds to charity to shave the beard.'"
In his head, Exelbierd thought there was no way he would raise the money to meet his $2,000 goal just for a beard, but people kept giving to him as he streamed his "Slingin’ It" bartending sessions over Facebook Live.
“I had my Venmo up, and I was pushing people to the Venmo, but when it became a fundraiser for a real situation, I realized it was way more important than money just going to myself,” Exelbierd explains. “So the Venmo became less and less, but the donations became more and more.”
When he hit $2,500 in donations, he came up with the idea to give most of it to hospital workers and other health care professionals, with a couple chunks going to other local groups, but he kept running into snags.
“All I kept hearing was, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ and after three or four days, I said, ‘I’m going to try to figure out another way.’ And that’s how me and Leigh Ann [Garrett] ended up getting connected,” Exelbierd says.
About four weeks ago, when the coronavirus started to reach South Carolina, Garrett and a few friends began to see that health care workers were putting themselves and their families at risk just by going into work every day.
They started collecting donations, fundraising initially over text through personal contacts, and they quickly came up with a few thousand dollars. They branched out from there, this time through Mt. Pleasant Facebook pages, collecting money through Paypal and Venmo under the name Feeding Our Heroes and buying meals from local restaurants to give to hospital workers.
“I don’t know where this is going to go,” Garrett says. “We aren’t even tax deductible at this point. Really, it was to immediately help those in the food and bev industry as well as the hospital staff.”
Garrett is the first to admit that there was little strategy involved in the inception of Feeding Our Heroes, but that hasn’t stopped the grassroots movement made up of a few local moms from making a difference.
“It’s a gift of moms, and women to be honest, that we see a need and we act,” Garrett says. “This has been a good example of figuring it out as we go. But, all three of us are professionals in different ways in our community, and this wouldn’t be possible without the community support.”
Exelbierd is essentially a $2,500 donor and a restaurant partner all wrapped up into one. It wasn’t until Garrett got his call that she realized just how important the restaurant partners were to this whole project.
“I told him, ‘You are our model restaurant partner,’” Garrett recalls. “‘You have tried to figure out a way to make this work, and for us to work together, going through our service.’”
After connecting, the two got a plan rolling. Exelbierd would donate the $2,500 to Feeding Our Heroes, who would then use the money to buy meals from Muse to deliver to local hospitals last Friday, with a goal of feeding at least 50 people through Exlebierd’s donation.
Moving forward, Garrett isn’t sure where Feeding Our Heroes will go, but she knows that with hurricane season looming, there will be more need in her community.
“We are going to have more disasters here,” Garrett says. “I think that’s why … we didn’t start with a strategy, but if the need is there, and the calling is there, and the community participation is there, we will continue.”