PROVIDENCE (WPRI) – Rhode Island native Justin Gontarek understands how tough of a time it is right now to be an owner of a small business. A few weeks ago, the co-owner of Oceanside Graphics in Warwick along with a few others launched an initiative to help local companies in the state. They billed it as the Gift It Forward initiate.

“I was on a call with Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee and about 30 businesses,” Gontarek recalls. “We were able to put some really good ideas together to get everything going in place for the Gift It Forward website.”

The effort to help raise money directly for local shops during the pandemic immediately took off. On March 24, was established. In the first 24 hours more than 50 businesses signed up. Fast forward two and a half weeks and there almost 20 times the amount of stores registered.

“In just that short span of time we’ve got more than 900 businesses on there,” Gontarek told Eyewitness News on Easter Sunday. “We had to make a second version of the website. The original site was only supposed to handle two to three hundred businesses.”

The website has attracted a variety of different businesses.

“Restaurants, retail shops, beauty salons, barber shops, liquor stores, bars. Any place that is offering a gift card or a service that can do some sort of gift card for digital payment for later goods is on there.”

As someone who runs his own place, Gontarek empathizes with his peers.

“It’s tough right now. Everyday it is, ‘Am I going to stay alive? Are we going to make it through this?’ Everyone’s main concern is the health aspect and making sure we get through the pandemic but then the hard reality sets in.”

Gontarek added: “It’s a really hard time right now to be a business owner.”