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Volunteers turn Secondhand into First Rate

 “We have plenty of fruits and vegetables. We have canned tuna or salmon or chicken.”

Aldea Leblanc wants to be sure people in her community don’t go hungry.  It is why she volunteers at the new St. Peter Thrift Store & Food Pantry in Bingham.  Aldea is the food pantry coordinator.

“I don’t want people to go without food,” she says. “We have a very low-income community. We have a lot of elderly. We have no employment.”

“I used to work at the Bingham Town Office, so I knew a lot of people, and I know that there are a lot of people in need,” says Violet Tibbets, another volunteer. “We are a very poor community.”

For decades, a food pantry operated out of the rectory of St. Peter Church in Bingham, but it closed in 2014 when Christ the King Parish sold the building. Realizing the need, which only worsened when the Madison Paper Industries mill shut down last year, Father John Mazzei, administrator, began looking for a new location.  He found it thanks to Jim West, a parishioner at St. Peter, who offered the thrift store & food pantry the use of a vacant store on Main Street.

The pantry serves residents from the communities of Bingham, Caratunk, Concord, Moscow, Moxie, and Pleasant Ridge.  It is open the first and third Wednesday of every month. People who meet income requirements can pick up food on one of those two days.

The pantry buys food at a discounted rate from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. It also receives food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and from Jimmy’s Market, the grocery store in town.  Some of the communities being served also contribute financially.

Still, there are expenses, such as rent, heat, and electricity, as well as the cost of buying food and household products. That is why the parish decided to also open a thrift store.

“We hope to be able to self-support ourselves through the thrift store,” explains Violet.

The thrift store is open every Thursday and Saturday, different days than the pantry to ensure client confidentiality.  It was an immediate hit.

“We’ve been quite busy since we started, especially during the winter months. We set our prices very low, but we have a good volume and a lot of repeat customers,” says Sonny Lagasse, who volunteers with his wife, Marsha.

“Donations have been unreal,” says Violet. “They know there is a need in this area, so they bring stuff to us.”

The volunteers are committed to giving customers a pleasant shopping experience. Everything is neatly arranged.

“We go through everything, and everything is washed and cleaned,” says Violet.

“Everything is labeled, too, by sizes,” adds Marsha.

“I move things for my wife, who puts them in one place and then moves them to another, and then moves them to another,” jokes Sonny, who is also the store’s handyman.

While the primary reason for the thrift store is to support the food pantry, the volunteers say there is an additional benefit.

“It’s important to give food to the people who need food, but it’s also important to make these clothes and all of this material available at very inexpensive prices,” says Marsha. “It’s helping the people.”

“A lot of people in this town don’t have a lot of money, and the prices are excellent,” says Janice, a customer.

The volunteers say they are happy to be able to contribute.

“We’re on a fixed income, so when we have all these requests at church for money, usually I don’t have much extra money to give,” says Sonny. “But I have plenty of time. So when this came up, we said, ‘Well, we can donate the time.’”

“I was a lawn sale junky anyway,” says Marsha. “I love going into secondhand shops. It’s like a treasure hunt to me.”

“It’s very self-rewarding for me,” says Richard Gondek, who volunteered because he has an extensive background in the retail industry.

“Some of these people, especially when they come to the food pantry, they look so depressed, and you make them feel better,” he says. “Once they leave here, they’re happy, and you know you’ve made somebody happy. That’s what makes it worth it.”

St. Peter Thrift Store & Food Pantry got a financial boost this spring when it received a $4,400 Matthew 25 Award from Catholic Charities Maine Parish Social Ministry.  It was among five parishes receiving a total of $15,000 to assist with programs that directly serve people in need.

“It’s fabulous,” says Aldea. “We are so thankful. We feel so blessed about that.”

The volunteers are grateful, as well, to the operators of the St. Sebastian Thrift Shop in Madison, also part of Christ King Parish.  The Madison store donated bags of clothing and display racks to help the Bingham store get started. It also set a wonderful example.

The Madison thrift shop got a modest start six years ago, filling one room of a building that was originally constructed to be used as a school.  Now, the shop occupies classroom after classroom.

“We’ve got electronics, holiday, linens, men’s, women’s, a boutique, infants and children, housewares, and there is a small corner that we call hardware,” says Fran Saultes, a volunteer.

“And there’s jewelry and books,” says Lorraine Aube, another volunteer. “It’s grown so much. We have every spot taken up.”

“People call it the mini mall,” says Fran.  “A lot of people will say, ‘Well, I come to the thrift first, and if I can’t find it there, then I will go somewhere else.”

vThe volunteers say many shoppers come every day that the store is open.

“They’re afraid that we’ll put something out and they’ll miss it,” says Fran.

The shop also draws summer visitors.

“We have lakes in the area, and in the summer, they look forward to coming back because they can go to the thrift shop,” says Fran.

As with the Bingham store, the volunteers take pride in their displays. Clothes are cleaned and ironed.  And Irene Siket, mother of Father Bruce Siket, hand washes every dish.

“She stands there from the time she comes in until the time she goes home,” says Fran.

The volunteers says it’s a wonderful team effort. Lorraine, for instance, enjoys creating the displays.  Her husband, Ed, is a handyman who made bookshelves and tables.

“There are some who are really good at cashiering, which I don’t like to do. Then, we have Fran who does all our paperwork,” says Lorraine. “It seems like somebody is good at everything we need.”

While proceeds from St. Peter’s thrift store are designated for the food pantry, the St. Sebastian Thrift Shop contributes to many causes, including food cupboards, a soup kitchen, the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Thanksgiving dinner programs, a Christmas toy program, and bus transportation programs.  The shop provides gas cards and food cards to people undergoing medical treatment, and in some circumstances, it will help individuals with expenses such as rent and electric bills. It awards scholarships to high school students and contributes to the annual Catholic Appeal. It will also give vouchers for clothing or housewares if, for instance, someone is burned out of their home.

“It gives me satisfaction knowing that we’re doing so much for people,” says Kathy Stevens, a volunteer.

Many of the volunteers have been with the thrift shop since its early days. They credit the persuasive invitation of Elisabeth Crowley, pastoral associate at the parish.

“She has a wonderful way of suggesting,” explains Fran.

Although it is hard work, they say it is also fun.

“I look forward to it. I really do. I can’t even imagine staying home on Thursday or Saturday,” says Fran.  “We’ve met so many nice people. They’re not just customers anymore. A lot of them are just friends.”

Meredith, a shopper, says the same about the volunteers.

“It’s fun to stop in,” she says. “These are people I’ve known for years. They’re really, really nice people.”