As one of the most difficult years in recent memory came to a close, a Gresham businesswoman brought together her closest confidants to come up with a plan — how to make 2021 special.
Bess Wills, general manager at Gresham Ford, wanted to uplift those hit hardest during the pandemic and wildfires.
"We were thinking what we could do to help businesses and citizens that need a light shined on them," Wills said.
She knew that businesses needed more customers, and those built on tourism needed to welcome visitors back to East Multnomah County. Community members needed food and help paying their bills. Seniors and vulnerable populations needed protective gear. Students were desperate to get out of the house, and families needed something to smile about.
Wills saw the need for happiness, positivity and caring. She realized her community needed love.
"I love my community, I love my customers," Wills said. "I want us all to step back and love each other."
Thus Gresham Ford's Love Project was formed.
"I don't think anything right now should be focused on sales. We want to do something to save our friends," Wills said.
The Love Project is built around community nominations. Each month East County residents will share a person's name, photo, and description of why they deserve love and kindness. Nominations can be for someone who has faced a hardship, like an unexpected medical crisis, or to honor someone who has gone above and beyond in their community — someone hosting a fundraiser during the pandemic.
What sets it all apart from past charitable acts helmed by Gresham Ford is community engagement. All of the monthly events throughout 2021 will utilize community nominations, guiding Gresham Ford to those who "deserve a little love."
"I don't want random acts of kindness, I want intentional acts of kindness," Wills said. "If we are all intentional with kindness, we can change things."
Each month of the project carries a different theme. The kickoff is this month, with Gresham Ford providing 10 meals to families through gift cards to local restaurants. That way hungry people are getting food, while small restaurants are also being supported after a difficult year.
Some of the nominations already submitted for February include a woman who just lost a sister to COVID-19; business owners going above and beyond to keep things open for their customers and staff; and a woman providing for her children as she fights cancer.
Nominations are being handled online by Pamplin Media Group. Each month community members can visit bit.ly/3jk1uU7 to nominate someone. For the February meal give away, nominations will remain open until 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24, with winners being announced the following day.
That will continue throughout the year.
Empowered to care
When vandals attacked the baseball field in Main City Park in downtown Gresham back in 2017, it was a Gresham Ford employee who led the charge to undo the damage.
Vandals had most notably ripped down the American flag that waves above the field.
"The flag has a lot of meaning, and I was irritated someone would want to steal it," said Ryan Johnson, service adviser at Gresham Ford.
So Johnson took the lead on making a difference. He stepped up with funds gathered from Gresham Ford and Weston Kia to ensure the Gresham-Barlow Youth Baseball and Softball League would avoid having to foot the steep bill for replacing the flag.
It was a project spearheaded by an employee — which has been the mindset at Gresham Ford. Wills has empowered her employees to work on projects they are passionate about. Every month employees can elect to donate a portion of their paycheck, sometimes just a dollar, to go toward a communal fund to back employee projects.
Those funds have been used to send local students to cheerleader camp, foot the bill for a child going through cancer treatments, and replace a flag.
"All of these employees are like a family," Wills said. "We are all working for the same goals."
That mindset has also spilled over to customers. When you visit the Gresham Ford Service Center or the Gresham Quick Lane, you can have 10% of the repair fees donated to a local church, charity or nonprofit organization. In 2019, the tithe donations totaled $10,838.34 to 162 local organizations.
Wills has implemented many other programs for community giving since joining Gresham Ford in 2003.
The dealership often serves as the chief sponsor of community events, and is a major backer of the annual SnowCap Community Charities Fill-A-Bag campaign. She took over Filling the Gaps, which aids in paying utility bills. Wills helped launch the Try Local First campaign with the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce, and is a founding member of 100+ Women Who Care East County.
"None of us can solve this individually, but together we can make a difference," Wills said. "We can't just sit and wait for governments to take care of us. We need to step up."
In 2020, the dealership dedicated advertising dollars and radio spots to advertise face mask distribution events, with the focus on getting masks into the hands of seniors and other vulnerable populations.
That trend continued into January as Gresham Ford passed along protective gear it received from the Ford Motor Company to those in the community. That mask distribution served as a soft-launch for the Love Project.
Wills isn't sure what the future holds for the Love Project. Part of the plan is to engage other businesses and organizations to make a difference alongside Gresham Ford, turning the monthly events into something bigger. Her dream is to turn the Love Project into a reocurring celebration.
"I would love for this to continue and to form more partnerships," Wills said. "I truly believe we can change the world."
A year of love
The themes for the Love Project change every month in an attempt to get a wide-range of support for community members, businesses and nonprofit organizations.
— March: Love Easter Baskets, nominations Feb. 28-March 24
— April: Spring Spruce Up, nominations March 26-April 22
— May: Love your Mother, nominations April 25-May 25
— June: Love your Dad, nominations May 26-June 23
— July: Summer Splash Party, nominations June 25-July 21
— August: Summer Get Away, nominations July 23-Aug. 25
— September: Back to School, nominations Aug. 27-Sept. 22
— October: Bountiful Harvest of Love, nominations Sept. 24-Oct. 25
— November: Hearts of Gratitude, nominations Oct. 27-Nov. 17
— December: The Joy of Giving, nominations Nov. 20-Dec. 15
To nominate a friend, neighbor or family member, visit bit.ly/3jk1uU7 by 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24.
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