For Susan and George Orrego, donating to local causes is just part of owning a small business in a small town.

They don’t give so willingly because they hope one day to see a return on those investments, or for the name recognition — few Ashlanders may know, for example, that the Yogurt Hut owners helped a little girl’s family afford her kidney transplant.

They do it, George Orrego says, because they feel obliged. “If you have, you should give,” he said.

And the Orregos have given so much that Yogurt Hut on Wednesday morning was honored as the grand prize winner of KeyBank’s first “Small Businesses that Thrive” contest, culminating a national search for which 70 small business were nominated based on their “commitment to helping communities thrive” through donations and sponsorships. The Orregos were awarded a $20,000 grant which, according to Susan Orrego, they’ve already earmarked for other donations.

Representatives from KeyBank, including area president Victor Aranda, arrived at Yogurt Hut on the 100 block of Lithia Way toting a giant novelty prize check and posed for pictures.

“This is a small business program where we have identified small business owners that give back to the community — in other words, they’re helping their communities thrive,” said Aranda, who drove down from Eugene for the ceremony. “So we did a national search to find out who are those small business — from New York to Alaska — that help the community thrive, support the community in their giving of time or money, whatever that may be.”

The Orregos certainly fit the bill.

The couple bought a house here in 2005 but didn’t relocate full-time until 2008, just after George Orrego retired following a 28-year career as a firefighter in the Bay Area. A year later they decided to open a Yogurt Hut. Starting a new business in a tourist town already loaded with food and dessert options may not seem like a relaxing retirement to most, but as Susan Orrego put it, “There wasn’t any frozen yogurt up here and we missed it — it’s that simple.”

The Orregos plugged in to their new community almost immediately and have been generous donors to a litany of fundraisers and special projects ever since. They set up a “Benefit Days” program, for which 10 percent of a given day’s sales go to a specific nonprofit; they’ve sponsored Medford Parks & Recreation tournaments, contribute to Wildlife Images, the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club; and, most notably, Yogurt Hut is the main sponsor for the Ashland Schools Foundation’s annual Monster Dash, a costumed fun run which raises funds for the ASF Impact Grant program.

The Orregos involvement in the Monster Dash goes beyond their monetary contributions, however, as they also helped expand the event to feature an all-you-can-eat pasta party, silent auction and live band the night before — additions that turned out to be big money-makers for ASF. The Orregos borrowed the idea of a pasta party from the Run for Education half-marathon in Danville, California, from which they relocated, and their son Drew was instrumental in convincing Odwalla, Clif Bars and Sysco Foods to contribute to the event.

“If you just looked at things from a purely business, pragmatic perspective, it’s good to let people know that you’re here, are a part of the community and give back,” Susan Orrego said. “And then they come into your store and they feel good about buying your product; it’s a two-way street. I don’t think you should expect people to just support you unless you can give back a little something to the community, and we’re not a big conglomerate, so sometimes we give back a little, sometimes we do more.”

The Orregos hunch that there was a demand for frozen yogurt in Southern Oregon has been proven sound by their success, which now includes stores in Grants Pass, south Medford and, most recently, north Medford in the hopping Northgate Marketplace.

“Not to play things up too much, but I was a firefighter and you see the effect of the Red Cross when there’s a fire and people are put out (of their home) and the Red Cross comes in and helps them,” George Orrego said. “I like to help with environmental issues, to people issues, but I’d rather focus locally if I can because you have a more direct impact. Maybe not a bigger impact, but a more direct impact.”

The Orregos learned that they may be in the running for the Thrive award when Ashland KeyBank branch manager Diane Bennett explained the contest.

When Bennett called Susan Orrego two weeks ago to break the news, she was skeptical.

“She said, ‘You won, you won,’” Orrego said of the phone call, “and I think it was because everyone else in the background was so excited that I started realizing that, oh, this could be real.

“It was amazing. You do stuff that you do because it’s something you believe in, so it’s even more amazing to have somebody else say 'thank you' and to have that acknowledgement. Even if it wasn’t that amount of money, just being acknowledged is a really wonderful thing. We all want to know if we’ve done something good if we try.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.