ALTONA, Man. – Forty years ago, four women in the southern Manitoba community of Altona opened a thrift shop to raise funds for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
It was the beginning of a network that has grown to 56 shops in Canada and 57 in the U.S. and has generated contributions totaling $167 million during those 40 years for the work of MCC.
“This is unbelievable – our mustard seed has turned into a big tree and it is still growing,” exclaimed Linie Friesen, 90, one of the founders of the Altona shop which opened March 17, 1972.
Friesen, who was a regular volunteer at the shop until a year ago, said the seemingly insignificant beginnings of MCC thrift shops and the steady growth reminds her of how the blessings of God can turn small contributions into miraculous growth.
“I think it has grown beyond our wildest dreams and hopes,” she said. “The Lord has blessed our efforts. It is just a remarkable thing.”
MCC’s thrift shop network will celebrate this 40-year milestone, May 7-10, at a conference in Archbold, Ohio, where a thrift shop opened in 1976. This conference, which takes place every four years, brings together delegates from both Canada and the U.S.
Reflecting on the early years, Friesen recalled her friend, Selma Loewen, who had attended the MCC Manitoba annual meeting in February 1972. There Loewen had heard John Hostetler – director of MCC’s material resources program at the time – report that MCC was reducing shipments of used clothing for overseas distribution.
Hostetler had also made the now legendary statement: “What we need is a machine that will turn clothing into cash.”
Within a few days of the February meeting, Loewen had invited Friesen and two other friends, Sara Stoesz and Susan Giesbrecht, to her home where they discussed the idea of selling used goods locally and donating the proceeds to MCC.
Friesen said the women’s groups contributed $125 to cover the first month rent of the shop, known back then as the Altona Community Self Help Centre. One month later, a thrift shop opened in nearby Steinbach and later in the year, two shops opened in Winnipeg. These four shops contributed $6,300 to MCC in 1972.
In the early years, most shops were started and administered by women, but it didn’t take too long before men became involved in the shops, said Friesen.
In the U.S., the first thrift shop opened in 1974 in Bluffton, Ohio, under the leadership of Lois Kreider. Two shops opened in 1975, in Millersburg, Ohio and Souderton, Pa., and four in 1976.
Ken Benner is board chairman of the Re-Uzit Shop of New Holland (Pa.), Inc., which expanded in Nov. 2010 from 10,000 square feet to a new site of 40,000 square feet. This has allowed for a greater variety of goods, including furniture.
Benner is sold on the business model employed by the thrift shops. “When you match the goods people have with people in need and the proceeds help people around the world, it just fits like a glove,” he said. “There’s little or no payroll because the shops are largely staffed by volunteers. The store doesn’t have to buy inventory. Sales are significant – so the percentage of profit given to MCC is huge.”
Other benefits include the availability of affordable goods, reusing and recycling, and meaningful opportunities for people to get to know each other and contribute to worthwhile causes.
“It’s almost overwhelming to see the nearly 10,000 volunteers who have given of their time to make this venture possible,” said Diana Miller, MCC U.S. thrift shop development coordinator. “In our current economy, we continue to be competitive as a network of nonprofit thrift shops, while providing funds for the benefit of MCC’s programming here and abroad.”
People donating items to MCC thrift shops, buying items or volunteering may feel their contributions are inconsequential. But Friesen emphasized that the success of MCC shops demonstrates that collectively these efforts make a difference.
“When we work together we can help others,” said Friesen. “Every little bit counts – it all adds up. We can’t all be overseas workers for MCC, but we can all help MCC.”
Last year, the shops in Canada contributed $7.2 million to MCC. The shops in the U.S. contributed $5.2 million.
To learn more about MCC thrift shops, visit thrift.mcc.org/.
Gladys Terichow is a writer for MCC Canada. Ed Nyce, MCC U.S. media and education coordinator, contributed to this story.