PORTLAND, Ore. — The reality of the coronavirus pandemic hit hard in early March, seeping into the Northeast Portland home where the Rutz family coped the best they could.
Two friends had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Whitney and her husband, Paul, were self-isolating, and also having to create structure for their 7-year-old daughter, Elsa, since schools had been closed.
“I was in a hole of despair,” said Whitney Rutz. “I cried a lot.”
On March 14, grasping for a way to cheer herself up, Rutz asked her daughter to help her make a cinnamon roll for the family to enjoy.
It ended up being 12 inches across and 3 inches deep. For fun, Rutz posted a photo of the creation, calorie count not included, on her Instagram account. Friends wrote to ask if she’d bake them one, too.
“I’m an amateur baker,” she said. “The recipe isn’t original.”
But the requests gave her an idea of how to help make the community a better place. She posted the photo again, calling the creation a “giant ass cinnamon roll." The next roll, she wrote, would be for charity. People could write to her, telling her how much they would pay for a roll. The highest bidder won the roll, with the money going to the Oregon Food Bank.
“My goal was to get $50,” said Rutz. “It sold for $300. Think about that. I got $300 for a cinnamon roll.”
That was just the start.
People wrote Rutz to ask if she would make another roll to sell.
The person who lost the bid promised to pay $250 for a roll.
Two days later, two people texted Rutz to say they’d match any bid on a third roll, and the company where they worked offered to match their bid.
“That sold for $750,” said Rutz. “Excuse me, I’m going to start crying.”
To support the food bank, Rutz made two giant cinnamon rolls for an online auction she ran.
“One sold for $285,” she said. “The other was sold and Nike did a three times match. That roll sold for $1,215.”
At that point, officials with the Oregon Food Bank called, curious who was raising money for the organization.
“I was just sending donations directly to them on Venmo,” said Rutz, who has had to create a spreadsheet to track orders and donations.
A woman who bought a roll said she lived alone and there was no way she could eat it. She asked if Rutz could donate her purchase to any Portland-area health care worker.
Rutz loved the idea and said that for every $500 donated to the Oregon Food Bank on its website she would make a giant cinnamon roll that would be given to a health care worker.
A friend of Rutz’s is a nurse. She cut through the red tape, making it possible for rolls to be delivered to area hospitals, assisted living centers and paramedics.
Rutz has made 55 rolls — orders continue to come in — and nearly 50 have been delivered to health care workers.
On Tuesday afternoon, Oregon Food Bank officials said more than $28,000 had been raised, and contributions continue coming in daily. When she started, Rutz hoped to raise $2,000. She said Tuesday she is now shooting for at least $35,000.
Susannah Morgan, the food bank’s CEO, said Rutz’s unique way of raising money was an “amazing example” of people coming together to make a difference in the lives of others.
At one point, Portland singer and performance artist Storm Large heard about Rutz and reached out to the baker via Twitter.
“She told me she wanted to help me deliver the rolls to the health care workers,” said Rutz. “A doctor told me he was a huge Storm Large fan. He asked if I could get her to autograph the delivery box for her.”
Large told Rutz she would “do one better."
“My daughter and other neighborhood kids had decorated the boxes,” said Rutz. “Storm said she would draw on all the boxes we use to deliver the rolls.”
Large said her paying jobs, and the gigs of all who perform for crowds, are “toast" for at least the next six months. She knows workers in all fields are facing layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts as businesses close or fight to survive.
"We can circle the drain of cynicism and despair,” said Large. “Or we can do something. Whitney did something.”
In a recent tweet, Large wrote: “Not all heroes wear capes, but they all smell cinnamon-y.”
Rutz, who works remotely for a Washington, D.C., company, does most of her baking on weekends. Each roll takes nearly four hours to create and bake.
“My husband says everything in the house smells like cinnamon,” she said. “At least it’s a pleasant smell, not like making tuna-melt sandwiches.”
She plans to keep making rolls as long as people keep giving money to the food bank.
“At some point, when things open up, the general sadness will end,” she said. “That’s when interest will taper off, and I’ll call it quits.”
A simple cinnamon roll changed everything.
“Sometimes you have to create joy and spread it around,” said Rutz. “I don’t know where I’d be emotionally and mentally if didn’t have this project to steer me in such a positive direction.”
How to help: Donate to Rutz’ campaign to benefit the Oregon Food Bank.
-- Tom Hallman Jr; email@example.com; 503-221-8224; @thallmanjr
This article was originally published by the Oregonian/OregonLive, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.