Thriving at Thrift on Mill

January 19, 2022 | News | Volume 26 Issue 2
Charleen Jongejan Harder | Special to Canadian Mennonite
Leamington, Ont.
Alfred Driedger, 87, refurbishes the sewing machines at Thrift on Mill. (Photo by Charleen Jongejan Harder)

It may be a pandemic, but Thrift on Mill in Leamington, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Thrift store, had its highest grossing month of all time in November 2021.

General manager Cindy Epp says that, after the lockdowns of last winter lifted, there was an initial flood of donations. At first, staff expected that it was going to settle down, but donations are up and have stayed up.

Epp attributes some of that support to a national social media campaign that helps connect thrift to a demographic that doesn’t connect to radio or paper media, where Thrift advertises strongly. Customers are loyal, she says, and some are buying more than ever.

The wider community recognizes the value of Thrift to Leamington, honouring it with a Heritage Award for over 35 years of dedicated service. The store first operated in Leamington under the name of the Et Cetera Shoppe on Erie Street in 1982 and, in 2016, moved to a new building on Mill Street, and took on its new name: Thrift on Mill. It will celebrate 40 years in the community this year.

Creation care is one value that Thrift on Mill is proud to engage in. When it can “next-cycle, up-cycle, or recycle” items, it does, according to Epp. This value shows up in most places in the organization. It has stopped buying plastic bags for customers and encourages them to bring their own reusable bags. The book section has secured a partnership with correctional facilities to receive appropriate soft-cover books. Through a battery-recycling program, metals are separated for scrap and recycling. As well, surplus clothing is redirected from the landfill.

Volunteers are the heart and soul of Thrift on Mill. They give of their time for two primary reasons: mission and community. Many of the senior volunteers are grateful for the support of MCC either for themselves or for their close family members. Their own family experiences in Russia led them to want to contribute to those less fortunate. And while Thrift on Mill is not yet able to resume some of the community traditions they enjoyed pre-pandemic, like coffee breaks, community connection remains a strong gift for volunteers.

“We’ve become nostalgic for the little things we had: 35 people gathered in the kitchen for snacks,” Epp says.

Herb and Mary Lou Enns have been volunteering for Thrift on Mill for 15 years. Mary Lou started in the book department with her sister-in-law, and she ensures that the books are in top condition. Herb started working in furniture and hardware, and transitioned to the electrical department. He doesn’t have set hours at this point, he just goes in, sees what there is to do and gets it done.

John Wiens is known as “the clock guy,” with over 35 years of experience. He has the skills and parts at home to repair and refurbish all sorts of clocks.

Alfred Driedger does the same for the sewing machines. At 87, he continues to take home donated sewing machines to test, oil and ensure they are in perfect working order. He will work on everything from a 100-year-old machine to last year’s model. He also spends some time on the floor providing ambient music with his harmonica and accordion. He has even designed a specialty mask that allows him to continue with the harmonica while complying with masking guidelines.

Cheryl Willms and “the linen ladies” set the standard for how fabric is folded. They recently lost a rag-cutting volunteer; as people age out, sometimes that shifts what the store can do.

“There’s an ownership over the work the volunteers do,” says Epp. “Every volunteer gives 100 percent of themselves. . . . It helps to have a sense of humour; we joke or we go crazy.”

COVID-19 brought a lot of challenges into the setting, from reducing shifts to less than a quarter and not gathering with large groups of friends, to dealing with anti-maskers in the store and navigating different opinions on the team.

“Change is tough,” she says, “so we find things to celebrate while we wait for things to normalize. For some time, we have stressed that this is a ‘COVID-free’ zone; we try to keep comments about COVID to outside the building.  All things end at some point, and we will come to an end of COVID-19.”

Epp, who began her position three weeks before the pandemic was declared in 2020, adds: “It has caused me to have more grace, and grow my ability to have grace when someone is not behaving at their best. Everyone is carrying a lot right now. We will come through this stronger, I believe. What matters is that we are all children of God in Christ.” 

Alfred Driedger, 87, refurbishes the sewing machines at Thrift on Mill. (Photo by Charleen Jongejan Harder)

Cindy Epp, general manager of Thrift on Mill in Leamington, Ont., assumed her role three weeks before the pandemic hit in early 2020. (Photo by Charleen Jongejan Harder)

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