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Full Bellies, Fuller Hearts

Ahwatukee Eats brings community together while paying it forward to those in need

During the 2007 holiday party, Bell Bank president and chief executive officer Michael Solberg announced a new initiative: Pay It Forward. Through it, employees would be given funds outside of their regular paychecks to support those in need. Today, Pay It Forward grants full-time employee $1,000 and part-time employees $500 to use annually, recently topping $22 million in total giving to date.

“In 2014, my friend and colleague Falon Kerby and I decided to pool our funds to create something special for the community,” says Dani Martinez, Bell Bank mortgage marketing regional manager. “My husband is a chef, and we’d been to several foodie events, so Falon and I were inspired to do something with food trucks.”

Martinez and Kerby began the process to get an event permit and contacted food trucks statewide to see who might be open to participating. Permits and partners in hand, they approached their Bell branch for help with the locale.

“Bell got us permission to use the common area outside of our Ahwatukee branch for our first event, which took place in April 2014 over lunch,” says Martinez. “We would have been happy if four people showed, but when hundreds came, we knew we were on to something.”

One event turned to two, and two to the nearly monthly event it is today. (They take off summers when too hot.)

“We now host Ahwatukee Eats in the massive parking lot of our neighbor, Desert Dentistry, and it takes place the third Friday of each month – save for in November and December when it is the second Friday to avoid proximity to holidays. We also do it a 5 p.m. now,” says Martinez. “Guests can expect a complimentary petting zoo courtesy of Bell Bank, balloons, youth craft tables, raffles, giveaways, live music from School of Rock Ahwatukee, and more.”

While most of the event is free, the food trucks do charge for their dishes as do some artisan vendors, but a portion of proceeds are donated back to Ahwatukee Eats to enhance the complimentary activities for the next month – funding the recent Trunk or Treat during the October Ahwatukee Eats, for example – as well as to help support one local organization in need.

“A portion of funds are used to support them, but we also do a drive during the event for a chosen organization as well,” says Martinez. “For example, we have partnered with the Kyrene School District, asking guests to bring non-perishable food items to stock their community pantry.”

Ahwatukee Eats has supported more than two dozen organizations over the years. In addition to the Kyrene School District, the event has benefitted Love Society, which creates opportunities for others to give back; Maggie’s Place, which offers a support system to women experiencing homelessness during pregnancy and baby's first year; and Diaper Bank of Central Arizona, which supplies hundreds of thousands of diapers to nonprofits countywide.

“We just keep getting bigger and bigger, which allows us to do more and more good,” says Martinez, adding that thanks to a promotion Kerby has had to step back a bit, but fellow Bell colleague Mari Bersch has picked up the baton to help continue growing Ahwatukee Eats for years to come.

  •  Ahwatukee Eats volunteers Kaitlyn White, Carrie Newcomb and founder Dani Martinez