A Lutheran pastor started Bethesda Lutheran Communities more than 100 years ago after a father reached out to his church to get support for his two children with special needs after his wife died.
Lutheran congregations and people with children in group homes began opening Bethesda Thrift Shops all across the nation.
Today, the agency continues to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities by offering homes and day programs, along with employment and faith and educational support systems.
Funding of these programs comes from the sales of merchandise at Bethesda Thrift Shops across the U.S.
Up until 2010, all the shops were operated entirely by volunteers.
MaryBeth Murphy, who has been the Appleton store manager since it opened seven years ago, said the landscape of volunteering is changing.
“Baby boomers are either working or taking care of their parents,” she said. Some people can’t commit to a regular schedule, so they come in when they can. I always say, ‘If it’s a cold or rainy day and you don’t know what to do, come on in!’”
The 18,000 square-foot building the agency leases on Northland Avenue offers spacious aisles and includes beautiful big windows that allow for lots of natural light.
“Most retail stores don’t have that luxury,” she said. “It makes for a pleasant and cheerful atmosphere—both for the customers and our volunteers.”
Last year, 22 Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) volunteers provided 3,458 hours of service in local thrifts shops. Funds from these stores are used to further their programs for low-income families or, as in the case of Bethesda Thrift Shop, the money received is meeting the needs of people with disabilities.
Women’s clothing is the No. 1 donated item to the store and the most popular item purchased, so volunteers are always needed to process the donations and get them ready for the sales floor. Those tasks include sorting the clothing into categories, tagging and hanging them.
On a regular basis, the store has a core of 10 volunteers. One of the “regulars” is RSVP volunteer Carleen Smith, who volunteers four days a week, sometimes on Saturday, too. Smith sorts donations and prepares them for the sales floor. She says Bethesda is the best kept secret in Appleton.
“A lot of people don’t know it exists,” she said. “It’s a nice place to volunteer and there are a lot of people to talk to.”
Murphy said they want volunteers to enjoy their time at the store.
“It’s always fun to bring a friend,” she said. It’s a good time to chat and have a cup of coffee. We do a lot of laughing around here, which is healthy. Some folks arrive in the morning to volunteer, then go to lunch and come back for an afternoon of volunteering.”
Murphy said senior volunteers are good role models and share their knowledge with young people who volunteer at the shop.
Students enrolled in EPIC Academy assist in building maintenance, sorting and pricing merchandise, along with assembling new furniture and arranging the store inventory.
Chris Castonia, a school social worker with the Menasha Joint School District, said students are doing more than accumulating volunteer hours that are required for graduation.
“Students learn and practice life skills,” he said. “They learn and practice vocational skills hands-on, earn opportunities for job references and earn opportunities to add volunteer experience to their resumes and enhance their employability skills.”
Murphy said volunteers say that the time they spend at the thrift shop goes by quickly.
“We have so many tasks … if you don’t like one thing, we can find another. It is a treasure hunt every day. Sometimes we have contests to see who can answer, ‘What is it?’ We have fun and no two days are the same, so we never get bored.”