Jeff Clemetson | Editor
The thing about great ideas is that they tend to keep getting greater. And that is exactly what happened with a thrift store started by the Environmental Club at Patrick Henry High School.
“The original thrift store was in the back of my classroom in a couple cabinets,” said environmental science teacher Lara Dickens. “The environmental class was doing a clothing swap and Buffalo Exchange was our vision. Kids outgrow something and they don’t want to be wasteful, so this would be a place where they could barter and change their wardrobes.”
The Environmental Club’s store encouraged the recycling of clothes, and students and staff donated to it regularly.
“It worked really well. It was small but had a following,” Dickens said. “The students were proud when they donated their clothes. The club members were proud that it had business. The staff were a huge part of keeping it open and stocked. It had a lot of heart.”
So much heart, in fact, that the thrift store caught the attention of the school’s Interact Club, a student-based group of the La Mesa Rotary Club whose purpose is to make sure every student has what he or she needs to get through high school.
“People started asking, ‘Hey, do you have any warm jackets? We have kids that need warm jackets.’ And [the store] got a little bigger and it had more of a purpose than just recycling clothing,” Dickens said.
The Interact Club already had a small office where it kept clothes and supplies for students in need. The club’s advisor, Dawn Marino, suggested the two ideas merge and put the thrift store there.
With added space and an added mission, the thrift store began expanding its inventory to include hygiene products, prom dresses, formal wear, clothes for interviews, shoes for P.E. class and more.
“Then word got out,” Dickens said. “The first parent that contacted me insisted that he stay anonymous. He just wanted to make sure that all students had a full high school experience [and have things like] senior t-shirts, prom tickets, etc. — no one should miss out on those types of experiences and mementos. Then he contacted other parents and they went into action.”
One of those parents was Kim Priebe, who shared news of the Environmental Club thrift store and the Interact Club’s need for supplies for Patrick Henry students on the local social media site Nextdoor. Soon that simple request for extra jackets and sweaters, became a “tsunami” of donated items.
“I would come home every day and there would be piles of stuff by my door, including clothing racks and things like that because they knew what we were trying to do,” Priebe said. “There was one woman who said, ‘I’d really like to contribute but I don’t have anything to give other than I’m a really good couponer. So tell me what you need as far as things I can coupon for.’”
A few days later, the couponer had a box of toiletries, makeup and other items to donate.
“I can’t even explain the day it started arriving,” Dickens said. “All of a sudden, Kim and her daughter come in with 11 boxes filled with clothes from the community before class. It was crazy.”
Boxes of donated items were delivered last November, which turned out to be fortunate timing.
“We opened the store a couple of days later and some students came in to buy gifts for their families for the holidays,” Dickens said. “As Winter Formal approached, dresses and suits started arriving. The dresses were beautiful and often had tags still on them for hundreds of dollars. Same for the suits. People were donating really nice things, often brand-new things; clothes that students would wear to a prom, interview or formal. The shoes were amazing. Over $200 was made just in the formal annex.”
To make sure the students with the greatest need got first picks, the school front office prioritizes them. All donated items, no matter what shape or original cost, are sold for a dollar. And for students who qualify, the items are given at no cost.
Even as the weather warms, the thrift store remains a popular place for students to browse and buy items. And there are still plenty of items left from the November donations.
Right now, Dickens said, the thrift store is not accepting any more donations of clothing until the inventory gets down to something more manageable, but there are still ways to help.
“I want the community to know that we appreciate what they did,” she said. “If there is anyone out there that still feels like they want to help they can donate money to the Interact Club.”
And, she said, the store needs hangars.
Despite the pause in clothing donations, the thrift store is still growing. Some of the ways the program might expand is to include special education students learning “real world math” by helping process deposit slips and organize shelves; a thrift store fashion show with help from the school fashion club; and expanding the store to include changing rooms.
No matter what new projects or programs are attached or added to the thrift store in the future, it will be the students who manage them.
“I want the students to feel that they are in control of the store again,” Dickens said. “It blew up so fast, in a great way, that the students had to back off while we figured out how and where to manage everything. They are starting to feel ownership again. I have to even stop myself from suggesting things. It is their store. They started something wonderful and obviously sustainable, that helps the environment and all students.”
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.