Stella Wiebe has cut up about 4,000 pairs of blue jeans for quilt blocks over the years.
But that’s certainly not the only thing she’s done during her long stint volunteering with Carman Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Thrift Shop.
She’s been volunteering with the non-profit enterprise since its start, and today is still among its 100 others arranging, sorting, folding, fixing, cleaning and pricing thousands of donated items that keep this thrift shop thriving.
The eagerness of customers streaming through its doors each day is matched only by the generous time given by volunteers to keep the store shipshape, and raising mountains of money for Mennonite Central Committee’s international work.
In 2017 sales of donated clothing, furniture, household items have raised $386,288 — the most money it’s ever generated.
After expenses are paid, and a portion of the funds turned over to local causes, that’s $240,000 for MCC’s international work.
They are rather pleased, in a modest sort of way, about it.
“There are stores that are bigger than ours and they make more money than we do,” said Frank Elias, a retired school principal and current president for the organization. Places like Winkler and Steinbach occupy space several times larger than Carman’s. There are 16 MCC Thrift Stores in Manitoba.
“But in our 5,000 sq. feet we generate about $65 to $70 per square foot,” he said. “There’s no store in Manitoba that matches us for performance.”
Those sales now add up to about $1,500 for every day the store is open.
Not too shabby for a shop that had a humble start in a basement.
It was 1975 when a few feisty local church women, inspired by the newly opened and original MCC Thrift Shop in Altona, decided to try selling donated goods here too.
Anna Penner, who has also volunteered since its beginning, remembers the early days. They’d price everything in the basement under a single bare light bulb, hung from a ceiling so low some bumped their heads on it.
“That first store was just a teeny little hole in the wall,” she said.
Some didn’t think it would last either. But $13,000 raised that very first year quelled the skeptics, and in years to follow Carman’s MCC Thrift Shop would outgrow its location several times.
The current location, purchased in 2004, occupies a former IGA grocery store. It’s a bright, spacious place, organized like a department store, with sections for household goods and furniture, tools, jewelry and clothing, a toy department, plus a library filled with books and magazines.
Liz Moffatt began volunteering here about five years ago and said Carman’s store is extra special among all she’s visited.
“I love thrifting, and I go across the country to visit thrift stores,” she said. “I always tell these ladies, ‘you have undoubtedly the best going as far as displays and merchandising.’ It really is remarkable.”
The bustling store is more than a place just to shop too. Customers regularly chat and power visit here. Parents are comfortable with children in tow, because the toys in the toy department can be played with while they shop.
“That’s the kind of store that we are. Everyone is given a friendly greeting. We have that kind of atmosphere,” said Elias.
Longtime volunteers say donations to the store are increasingly generous. It’s astonishing how much comes in and it seems to be of higher and higher quality all the time.
That’s a sign of how much stuff everyone has, of course, and how frequently upgrades of things like furniture and electronics happen nowadays. They take it all because that couch or radio goes happily out the door in to another home. There’s no question where a lot of this material would be ending up otherwise, says Penner.
The MCC team doesn’t throw away stuff either. They’ve devised a colour-coded price tag system that shows what’s been on the shelves awhile. Those items are gathered up for Union Gospel Mission in Winnipeg where they’re redistributed to those who need them.
“The bulk of it is clothing,” said Elias. “They also take some shoes.”
That’s been very helpful because Carman would otherwise run out of space mighty quick, he adds.
“At one time we had a terrible time with where we put the excess. To put it in the garbage just didn’t seem right.”
Evidently, some donors feel that way about nearly anything. They had a pair of false teeth given to them.
“And we had a bag of dried tea bags come in once,” adds Wiebe. “Someone thought we could use them again.”
Donors also turn over some very valuable items.
“This just was handed to me and I don’t know if it’s gold but it’s very pretty,” said volunteer Laura Thielmann, holding up a lady’s locket. Items like these will be appraised.
“We do have gold given to us,” she adds.
And many one-of-a-kind vintage items and antiques. Store volunteers started selling these through silent auctions a few years ago, seeing this as not only giving more people a chance to purchase something they really like, but a way to earn more money with these items too. Sales from silent auctions last year brought in $34,000, and these events definitely draw the customers. It’s commonplace on the final day of sales to have buyers milling about, bidding each other up to the last anxious minute, said Elias.
All the cash through the register, minus store operating expenses is turned over to Mennonite Central Committee to support its international relief, development and peace programs in 55 countries. Those programs include providing food and other assistance in times of crisis around the world, and tools and education to support sustainable agricultural practices among the world’s farmers. MCC also does peace-building training in areas of conflict throughout the world.
A portion of funds raised here also support the local community, of course. The thrift shop donates to the Handi-van service, the hospital auxiliary and many other organizations and projects. They’ve provided funds for refugee assistance and store credits for them to start their lives with household items from here. Families who lose homes to fire also come to begin rebuilding their lives.
Volunteers tell heartfelt stories about what a difference the thrift store can make for individuals.
“I remember this young boy who came in and said, ‘I can’t play soccer because I have no shoes and I can’t afford any,’” recalls Helen Kroeker. “They don’t let them play soccer unless they have the right shoes. I said, ‘well, come with me.’ We got him a pair of soccer shoes for $2. He was so happy.”
It’s those kinds of moments that are especially gratifying. Volunteering has cemented lifelong friendships too of course. And it’s gratifying knowing the work they do supports important causes both locally and internationally.
This store provides a place to put their faith in action, says Penner. She said she used to wish she could go overseas to do mission work.
“So this is my long-term mission trip,” she said. She has also volunteered here since 1975.
“Christ said, ‘When I was hungry you fed me. When I needed clothes you clothed me,’” said Elias. “While we’re working here we do exactly that. Someone picks up that pair of pants. That’s $3. That’s going to feed many people.”
Tempted to visit Carman MCC Thrift Shop? Please note it is closed for the holidays December 24 until it opens again January 2. Regular store hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.