That its thrift stores have helped fund Mennonite Central Committee projects around the world for 50 years is due to the dedication of volunteer workers, says the executive director of MCC Ontario.
“The way this kind of business model works is because a large effort is by volunteers that work in the back or they’re working in the front. So the costs are very low, which just means that the net proceeds from the operation provide a significant amount of our overall budget and allow us to do what we do around the world,” said John Head as the organization celebrates the golden anniversary of its thrift-store operation.
Debbie Siertsema, general manager of the Elmira location, agreed.
“Our stores are 98 per cent run by volunteers. They’re a great community that comes together that are not all Mennonites, because they want to work towards this end focus of relief, development and peace,” Siertsema said.
MCC Thrift was started by four Manitoban women who opened what they thought would be a temporary location to receive clothing donations and raise money selling the items. Since that first shop opened in Altona, Man. in March of 1972, MCC Thrift has raised more than $300 million to help fund the myriad of activities undertaken by the charitable organization.
“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 Susan Giesbrecht, one of the founders in a release marking 50 thrifty years.
“It grew much beyond what I or any of the four of us thought it would grow into.”
While Head said there are thrift stores that use a similar model, MCC draws on its base of supporters.
“We’ve opened locations where we have a lot of local support. The reason that we have such a strong volunteer base is because the local (community), particularly Mennonite churches, are very active volunteers in our thrift shop. In some cases, the volunteers that are very loyal might have been helped by MCC to immigrate to Canada when they were children. And they might be in their 70s or 80s now, so they have that legacy that impacted them,” he said.
MCC Thrift also has a commitment to sustainability, Head explained.
“One of the very important byproducts of thrift is not only generating funds, it’s to keep things out of a landfill – it provides a kind of a second life for all that you see there. So it gives families and households an opportunity to donate something, and then it gets reused rather than thrown out. We live in a kind of disposable society and mentality, which does not help at all with creation care, or some of the impact on our environment.”
Being open to donations means the thrift stores see all kinds of items pass through their doors, including a live bird at one point, said Siertsema.
“That’s part of the fun part of when we’re receiving items…it’s like Christmas in that area. So what can we see or what’s unique and where is the value in some of that? We get lots of toys rotated through, and [I see] these are the old toys from, say, when I was young. And then there’s the toys from the next two or three generations. So it’s just fun to watch,” she said.
(The live bird didn’t find itself on a store shelf. Rather, it was eventually taken to a rescue location.)
For the more valuable items the stores will host a silent auction, with Elmira’s auction holding several pieces, from rare Hot Wheels cars to Toronto Maple Leafs collector items.
The 50th anniversary is worth celebrating because of its sustainability and importance to the wider MCC, Head noted.
“You look at what $300 million has accomplished over the last 50 years in terms of providing relief and development and peace efforts around the world – it’s very, very significant. In Ontario, the thrift shops that we have here are probably about 25 per cent of our total revenue,” he said.
The MCC is currently offering support to Ukrainans, he added.
On a personal level, Siertsema said the volunteers are there because they want to help the world in some way.
“Each of us are working here because we know it’s doing work further and beyond.…We know that we’re working for an organization that does important work in relief, development and peace,” she said.