July 22, 2016

‘Good Things for Good Purpose’: Thrift shop will help fund St. Vincent de Paul Society’s goal to ‘help those most in need’

Volunteers for the Indianapolis council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul stand with a “Mission 27 Resale Coming Soon” sign on July 11 outside of the thrift store’s soon-to-be home at 1201 E. Maryland St. in Indianapolis. The volunteers are Changing Lives Forever director Domini Rouse, left, distribution intake manager Barbara Niezgodski, president John Ryan, linens and bedding coordinator Kathleen Williams, distribution center executive director Jeff Blackwell and south district council president Charlie Mazza. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Volunteers for the Indianapolis council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul stand with a “Mission 27 Resale Coming Soon” sign on July 11 outside of the thrift store’s soon-to-be home at 1201 E. Maryland St. in Indianapolis. The volunteers are Changing Lives Forever director Domini Rouse, left, distribution intake manager Barbara Niezgodski, president John Ryan, linens and bedding coordinator Kathleen Williams, distribution center executive director Jeff Blackwell and south district council president Charlie Mazza. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

The distribution center for the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Indianapolis Council monopolizes one end of the 1200 block of East Maryland Street near downtown.

Inside the late 19th-century former mattress factory, old bricks lie in piles on the floor. Gaping holes exist where glass windows stood, and sunlight filters through the drapery of dust in the air.

These sights are not the death knell for the distribution center. Rather, they are signs of new life as the council prepares the building in order to open Indianapolis’ first-ever St. Vincent de Paul resale store—“Mission 27 Resale”—in October.

The council already operates a food pantry, a distribution center, the Changing Lives Forever program to help people break the cycle of poverty, a bike program, ministries for the homeless, and more.

So why start a thrift store? The answer touches upon both the services of the Indianapolis St. Vincent de Paul Council and the mission of the society as a whole: to help those most in need. (Related: St. Vincent de Paul Society thrift stores in the archdiocese and the surrounding region)

‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could ...’

The process of establishing the thrift shop began in the spring of 2015, six months after Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner John Ryan became the council’s volunteer president.

“What I did as president for the first six months was just listen and learn about all the good things about the organization, and what the challenges of the organization are,” says Ryan.

In the feedback he received, two items rose to the top. First was the need for more nutritional food at the food pantry.

Currently, the food pantry is primarily only able to offer what is provided by Gleaners Food Bank, weekly donations from Second Helpings, contributions from a food bank in Fort Wayne, parish food drives and the occasional unsolicited offer to buy overstock foods.

“The repeated issue is that we have an awful lot of candy and crackers. But couldn’t we have more produce, milk and eggs on a consistent basis?” says Ryan.

“So the [members of the] organization thought, ‘Is there a way we can do what we’re doing now, but supplement and buy [food]? Wouldn’t it be great if we could give the 3,000 people a gallon of milk a week and a carton of eggs and some choice of meat?’ ”

The second challenge that caused the most concern was how to obtain finances to expand the successful 18-week Changing Lives Forever program, which was originally offered at the council level just once a year.

Ryan says many members of the society asked, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have 20 conferences/parishes have two Changing Lives programs a year?”

Four Indianapolis parishes with St. Vincent de Paul conferences are already offering the program. But the cost to do so is about $7,500 per class, notes Ryan.

“We might have 200 graduates a year,” he says. “Some might say that’s not very many. But those are 200 people in this community who have broken the cycle of poverty or are on their way to breaking that cycle, and the people around them have been positively affected, too.”

Because “poverty is not overcome in 18 weeks,” says Ryan, members of the program are being trained by Trusted Mentors Association to learn how to mentor the Changing Lives graduates.

Additionally, the program has teamed up with United Way and Center for Working Families to offer more life-skill and job-search classes to graduates.

“We’re being told that we have one of the best structural programs in the country,” says Ryan. “But how do we pay for [its expansion]?”

$1 million versus $20 million

To find a solution, a group of leaders with the Indianapolis Council canvassed other nearby St. Vincent de Paul councils.

“We got on the phone to Cincinnati, Dayton, Louisville and South Bend to see what they’re doing, and how they run their councils,” says Jeff Blackwell, a member of St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis. He volunteers as the Indianapolis Council’s executive director of the distribution center. “All of them, especially Cincinnati, had ongoing thrift stores. …

“It became clear that they were outdistancing us. They deal with budgets of $15-, $18-, $20 million. We are on a $1 million budget [not including the roughly $1 million raised by individual parish conferences]. And they’re doing so much more.”

Thrift stores have already proven successful for St. Vincent de Paul conferences in the archdiocese. The conference at St. Mary Parish in North Vernon opened a new thrift store in January 2015.

“It’s been an amazing success,” says conference president Nora Campbell. “Our income is more consistent now. I believe if you build it, they will come. That’s what happened here.”

For 15 months, Blackwell and his team researched the financial and administrative implications of opening a local thrift store. Although the distribution center at 1201 E. Maryland St. is “a little off the beaten path,” says Blackwell, the decision was made to use part of its space for the thrift store, since the building is already paid for.

The resale shop will offer clothing, accessories, shoes, housewares, home décor, knickknacks, bedding, linens, toys and furniture that have been donated to the society, and are in excess of what is provided to those in need.

The store will also have a room with higher-end furniture for sale, pieces donated that might not serve the needs of the poor, but will do well to raise funds for the organization’s mission: to serve those most in need.

‘People would start lining up at midnight’

“I don’t want people to think that we are no longer taking care of people who can’t afford to buy anything,” notes Blackwell. “That’s an integral part of what the society does, and we’re not going to depart from that. … The home visit is still as central to our mission [in Indianapolis] as it is globally for [the Society of] St. Vincent de Paul.”

Diane Powers, who volunteers as co-chair for the resale shop committee, says the thrift store will actually be an advantage for the organization’s clients—those who have received a referral form for furniture and appliances as result of a home visit by a St. Vincent de Paul member.

She points out that the distribution center is now only open for clients on Saturday mornings. With the thrift store being open six days a week, she says, they will be able to collect the items on their referral form on Monday through Saturday.

“We’ve heard stories where people would start lining up at midnight because they know it’s first come, first served for an appliance, a couch, table and chairs or for beds,” Powers says.

While volunteers will still be utilized at the distribution center and also at the store, a full-time manager will be hired to operate the resale shop. Other paid positions will be available at the shop to help with managing, stocking and providing donation pickup service during the week. Graduates of the Changing Lives program will serve as a primary source of employees.

“Just getting them into a consistent job three days a week, and providing a recommendation to get them to their next job is our thought,” says Powers. “We’re looking for funding to help support that, because looking at employing, there will be a cost.”

‘A great base of volunteers … and donors’

Ultimately the shop will produce profits that will pay not only for its operation, but especially for the two main projects it will initially fund: the expansion of the Changing Lives program and more nutritional choices at the food pantry.

Inadvertently, the thrift store will also help bring in money from another source—grants.

“When I would approach companies or especially grant makers, they would ask, ‘What are you doing to generate your own funds as opposed to waiting for generous donors to give you money?’ ” says Blackwell, who previously served as the council’s director of development. “We didn’t have much of an answer because we always depended on the generosity of the spirit.”

While the shop will soon be profitable, “it won’t be a moneymaker in the first year,” says Powers.

But the conference will be able to move forward because “our donor base is remarkably strong,” says Ryan. “We couldn’t do what we do without them. You’ve got to have a great group of volunteers, but also a great base of donors.”

‘Continue to do charity, but add value’

When the thrift shop opens in mid-October, it will do so under the name “Mission 27 Resale,” with the motto “Good Things for Good Purpose.”

“We’re trying to differentiate ourselves from Goodwill,” says Powers, who also notes that the store’s prices will be cheaper than those at Goodwill.

“[The mission of] St. Vincent de Paul is a little more expansive [than Goodwill],” she notes. “We still need to continue our mission in helping those who can’t help themselves.”

And therein lays the meaning of the name “Mission 27 Resale.” It refers to the purpose of the society—to help those most in need—and points to the feast day of its patron saint: Sept. 27.

“We’re working to create a nice environment with competitive prices that people will want to come back to again and again and again,” says Blackwell.

Although an official opening date has not been set, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin will bless the new space at 10 a.m. on Oct. 18.

Ryan sees the thrift store as one more means of furthering the mission of the Indianapolis St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“We could go along and continue doing what we’re doing here [at the distribution center], and continue to do what we’re doing at the food pantry,” he says. “But folks aren’t satisfied.

“Instead of constantly just giving things to people, let’s continue to do our charity work—but let’s add value to that, and let’s give these folks [a way to] literally change their lives.”

(To schedule a pickup of items, log on to www.svdpindy.org or call 317-687-1006. To make a financial donation to the Indianapolis St. Vincent de Paul Society, log on to www.svdpindy.org or call 317-687-0169. For more information on the Mission 27 Resale shop, contact Jeff Blackwell at 317-924-5769, ext. 320.)

Local site Links: