Above photo: Linie Friesen, Selma Loewen, Susan Giesbrecht and Sara Stoesz, the four women who founded the first MCC Thrift shop in Altona, Man. (MCC photo)
Susan Giesbrecht sits back in her chair in her southern Manitoba home from time to time, remembering a project she and three friends embarked upon 50 years ago, something none of them believed would ever take off.
In 1972, Giesbrecht joined friends Linie Friesen, Selma Loewen and Sara Stoesz to open up the very first MCC Thrift shop in Altona, mainly selling secondhand clothes to people in the region.
None of them thought the shop would even last the year.
“We thought after about six months everyone would have cleaned out their closets and we’d be out of business, but as you can see that’s not the case,” said Giesbrecht, now 93 years old.
“It grew much beyond what I, or any of the four of us, thought it would grow into.”
In the years prior to opening the Altona shop, MCC shipped secondhand clothes to partners all over the world. Eventually, leadership determined the money spent on shipping would be better spent buying clothes and other necessities locally at a fraction of the cost.
At the same time, MCC began to ponder how to turn used clothing into money to benefit relief and development projects around the world.
The four women had an idea to do just that.
They managed to find an inexpensive storefront in Altona, cleaned it up and set to work seeking donations from people in the community to sell.
The space was so small, shoppers would sometimes ask to buy Loewen’s coat, which often hung behind the cash register because there was nowhere else, Giesbrecht remembered with a laugh.
“We thought this was the way to turn our clothes into cash. And it worked,” she said.
From that humble beginning grew a thriving network of shops across Canada and the U.S. which generates millions of dollars every year for MCC programs locally and around the world. In the 2020/2021 fiscal year, shops in both countries contributed CAD $12,387,000 to support MCC’s work.
Safe place for volunteers
For Giesbrecht and the three other women, the thrift shop became more than a way to support MCC’s programming.
Because the majority of the people who signed on to volunteer at the Altona Thrift Shop were housewives in their 40s with children in school, Giesbrecht, Friesen, Loewen and Stoesz had to ensure the shop was set up to meet their specific needs.
The volunteers would come into the shop after their children were off to school, went back home over lunch, and would be back in time to put dinner on the table.
“They were irregular store hours, but we just felt we would do this to suit our volunteers,” Giesbrecht said.
For these women, coming to the thrift shop became an important part of their social life and a way to feel like they were contributing to their society beyond their family.
Giesbrecht worked as a teacher prior to getting married and before she raised her children. While she wasn’t working, she was volunteering as a church librarian and Sunday school teacher.
But the thrift shop gave her an outlet and a place to be with other women in similar circumstances.
In 1972, there were no coffee shops in Altona where women could meet up and talk about their lives. That’s where the thrift shop came in.
“Women had, not major problems, but something they wanted to talk about. And we would give them the time,” Giesbrecht said.
Whether they wanted to talk about their marriages, their children or their time at home, it was all up for discussion.
“We didn’t do any major counseling like you think about today, it was just a matter of being able to visit,” Giesbrecht said.
The volunteers also attended different churches in the area, so Giesbrecht and the other founders saw the shop as a good way to build bridges between the different congregations.
“We got to know each other quite well and appreciate each other.”
Now in her 90s, the MCC Thrift founder keeps an eye on the shop and the operation as a whole from afar.
“When I look at the numbers it’s done a good thing for MCC,” she said.
“It’s a good feeling, but it’s more a feeling that if we do things in the name of Christ, then Christ can work with that and help us. He has done that in so many places.”