A Cart Full of Rewards

05/04/2018 .
Karen Koczwara  .  Volunteer Storyteller

When Allegra began collecting coupons from her local supermarket, she had no idea the impact they’d have. A stay-at-home mother of two young boys, she merely hoped to save a few bucks on her grocery bill. But a good idea sparked a meaningful movement that would change her life — and the lives of others.

While shopping at the grocery store near her home, Allegra learned about an incentive program that awarded coupons, once a week, for free food items to shoppers. The coupons could be redeemed for free bread, meat, and other items. Right away, Allegra began collecting the coupons to save a little money. But as her coupons piled up, she wondered if she could put them to better use.

Allegra thought about the Food Pantry at Saddleback’s PEACE Center, and knew this could be an easy way  to help out. She always had a heart for donating to the Food Pantry but often felt like she was unable to give enough. She picked up her free items and drove to the Food Pantry to drop them off.

After the first load, she was inspired with an even bigger idea. She posted on the Ladera Ranch community Facebook page, asking if anyone else had coupons that they would be willing to donate. Many people from the group began reaching out, willingly donating their own coupons for the Food Pantry. Community members were happy to help. Allegra posted over the weekend, reminding people about the coupons. On Monday morning, she made her rounds, gathering the coupons from people in her neighborhood. The response was overwhelming. She calculated the pile of coupons — she had $200 worth of food to donate in that one trip alone.

The movement quickly spread. Monday mornings became Allegra’s favorite part of the week. Armed with her stack of coupons, she returned to the local supermarket, piling her cart high with food. She then trekked to the PEACE Center Food Pantry, where she delivered the goods. To inspire her supportive community, Allegra snapped pictures of her full grocery cart and posted them to the Facebook group.

“More and more people wanted to get involved,” she said. “It began as a small idea but turned into something huge. The response from everyone was really amazing.”

“This was a completely new experience for me,” Allegra continued. “I used to watch extreme couponing shows and was impressed with how much money people saved. I love saving money myself and know that every penny matters.”

Most donors left their coupons on the porch, so Allegra did not get to interact with them face-to-face. But as she continued posting to Facebook, she learned that many of her neighbors attended Saddleback Church, too. While shopping, she also had an opportunity to talk with several clerks about Saddleback Church and The PEACE Center.

During one shopping trip, Allegra redeemed her coupons for 12 packages of hot dog buns. The large purchase required two separate orders. Inspired by what she was doing, the clerk offered to use her own money to buy hot dogs for the food pantry.

“The clerks knew me as the coupon-food-pantry lady,” Allegra joked.

Some of the coupons Allegra collected could be redeemed for other items. One of the coupons was for reusable shopping bags from an online company. Allegra ended up with 30 of these coupons. She decided to pay the shipping costs and use the bags to deliver her food in. The bags became a nice way for people being served at the pantry to carry their groceries home. Her original order of the bags was misplaced in the mai,l so a replacement order was shipped. In the end, both orders arrived, and she got to keep all 60 bags. On each bag, she inscribed the words “I am so very loved. 1 John 3:16.”

Allegra got to know PEACE Center volunteers, helped stock shelves, and learned about the many people the food pantry served each week. “The food pantry is especially in need of canned meats and protein,” she said. “I learned that they always need cleaning supplies, toilet paper, vitamins, and baby products, too.”

Getting involved with the Food Pantry proved especially meaningful for Allegra, as just a few years before, she’d found herself in need.

“I’d just had my second son and had gone back to work with a four-month-old at home,” she said. “Two weeks later, the company downsized and laid me off. Then, my husband was laid off, as well. We had a mortgage and two kids, but we struggled with the idea of getting help. What would it look like to other people? Would we be judged? We felt embarrassed and ashamed. After all, we didn’t fit the preconceived ‘needy’ profile. We had a home and cars, so did getting help to feed ourselves make sense?”

“The experience humbled us,” Allegra continued. “Getting help allowed us to pay the other bills because our basic needs were met. It forever softened our hearts to the needs of others. It shattered those preconceived ideas and broke barriers I didn’t know I’d created. That experience caused me to never turn away from trying to fill that gap for others.”

By the end of the coupon program, Allegra and her community collected $3,200 in food for the Food Pantry. What began as a few loaves of free bread turned into an unexpected, delightful journey that left a lasting impression on her.

“Sharing and giving have always been important to me,” she said. “It was neat to be able to combine two things I loved by doing this.”

For those wondering if they can make a difference with limited resources, Allegra knows the answer firsthand.

“God wastes nothing in our lives,” she said. “Plant your small seed and watch how only God can grow it! I thought this would be a single shopping trip, but it turned into three months of continual giving. I’m a stay-at-home mother who constantly struggles to see my worth, but God found a way to use my passion for saving money and stretching budgets, as well as my love of the food pantry, to create a way to serve. This cost me nothing but time and energy, which God returned to me in joy. God will heed our desire to serve if we simply say ‘yes’ with what’s in our hand!”

Learn more about Saddleback's PEACE Center at saddleback.com/peacecenter.