Thriving in competition

The Goodwill building at 231 SW 19th St., near I-35, has ample parking and a drive-through dropoff.

With the new Goodwill store in Forest Lake, you might be wondering how the long-standing local thrift stores are faring.

The answer is “Quite well, thank you.”

Community Helping Hand and Family Pathways, both of which have been in town for over 30 years, report no negative effect.

Goodwill opened its new 20,600-square foot building on 2.4 acres in March. Located at 231 SW 19th St., the store has a drive-through donation center and employs over 35 full- and part-time staff.

Vicki Sanvick, manager of the Family Pathways store in Forest Lake, said having three thrift stores here makes Forest Lake a destination. “It’s like the Robert Street theory,” she said. “There are so many restaurants on Robert Street, you’re sure to find some place to eat.”

Thrift store shopping is popular these days, she said, and thrift shoppers come to Forest Lake knowing there will be choices.

Shelly Flasch, store operations coordinator at Community Helping Hand, agreed. “It really hasn’t affected us at all,” she said. “We work more on an individual basis for assistance.”

Community Helping Hand

Flasch said all the money the thrift store generates goes back into the food shelf and financial assistance programs to help people who live in the Forest Lake school district pay rent and utility bills. “We receive no county, state, or federal funding,” she said. Besides thrift store sales, the other funding sources are donations and grants.

Jan Sandberg, president of the Community Helping Hand Board of Directors, said “We’re still getting plenty of donations.” Giving is usually lower in the summer, she said, but picks up in the fall.

The 501c3 nonprofit organization gave families approximately $35,000 in financial and food shelf assistance in 2010, she said.  In 2011, sales were up by 30 percent and financial and food shelf assistance totaled over $60,000.

For Community Helping hand, more important than the arrival of Goodwill has been Forest Lake road construction.  “When the Broadway Bridge closed in 2010, we noticed our sales increasing and our customer base expanding,” Sandberg said. “People were redirected to the new bridge on CR-83 and would take 15th Street over to Walmart or Target. They had to drive right by our store,” she said.

Community Helping Hand is located behind the Target store at 408 SW 15th St.  Because of the store’s less conspicuous location, Flasch said, “We are the hidden treasure.”

The store is open Monday thru Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Food shelf hours are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from noon to 4 p.m. by appointment.

Volunteers accept donations at the receiving area in the back of the building during store hours.

Three part-time paid staff run the thrift store, food shelf, and financial assistance programs.

Community Helping Hand began in 1979 to help families in need with low cost clothing and financial assistance. The food shelf opened in 1980. Originally located on Lake Street, the organization survived smoke damage in 1980 and a fire in 1989, causing relocations. The current site opened in 1991.

In 2006 the building was expanded, with volunteer help directing the project from Crossroads Covenant Church. The available space was doubled from about 2,000 square feet to about 4,000.

In addition to helping individuals and families, over the years the organization has aided the Fireman’s Auxiliary, Forest Lake Ice Arena, Congregate Meals Program, Meals on Wheels, Battered Women’s Task Force, EMS, Youth Service Bureau, Community Scholarship Fund, Adolescent Chemical Dependency, Senior Center, Lakes Life Care Center, Forest Lake High School Band, Drug Safety Program, and Child Safety Council of Forest Lake.

Sandberg said lately, no one has dropped off any mattresses or refrigerators, for which the group has no use and must pay to dispose of.  Cameras help prevent unwanted dropoffs. Unfortunately, a camera had to be replaced: “We caught somebody on camera, destroying the camera,” she said.

Family Pathways

Family Pathways is a bigger organization. The Forest Lake and Wyoming stores are on the southern edge of a seven-county territory that extends west to Foley, north to Onamia/Sandstone, and east to Frederic, WI. Forest Lake is the farthest-south city in the area covered.

The 501c3 non-profit organization has an executive director, development manager, and business manager, plus three persons in charge of all the food shelves, youth services and senior services.

Family Pathways operates thrift stores in Cambridge, Forest Lake, Foley, Hinckley, Isanti, Pine City, Princeton, Rush City, St Croix Falls, WI, and Wyoming, with a book store in North Branch. Each store has a paid manager and paid workers plus volunteers.

The Family Pathways mission is to support community programs:  food shelves, help for the elderly in their homes, teen centers and youth programs.

At the Forest Lake Thrift Store, Manager Vicki Sanvick explained that proceeds from the thrift stores support the other programs and services.

“The money from our stores goes right back into the local communities,” she said. “They have other support, too, but we’re the lion’s share.” The food shelves also get donations, she said, but the teen centers and elderly services rely heavily on money generated by people buying donated items from the thrift stores.

The Forest Lake store needs more donations, especially clothing, Sanvick said, and is particularly low on men’s shirts.

Donations are taken whenever the store is open, and only furniture is inspected.

There’s no bad time to donate, she said. People can bring in winter outwear in the spring and Easter dresses the week after Easter.

Seasonal clothing is stored until needed. “We really appreciate the nice donations we get,” Sanvick said.

Certain donations are set aside for the monthly silent auction. Unique items, including artwork, antiques, jewelry, bobble heads, and sports memorabilia are often sold this way. “We let the public decide what it’s worth,” she explained.

The next silent auction, to be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, will be outdoors, with a youth fundraiser lunch and the donated service of an auctioneer.

Family Pathways is volunteer-based, and new volunteers are always needed. Clothes sorters would be welcome to help at the processing center in the Forest Lake building.

The number of volunteers in Forest Lake was 51 in 2011. Seven volunteer groups, including service groups from churches and schools, also gave their time.

Except for the annual volunteer dinner for the entire organization, which is in Isanti and attracts about 500 people, volunteers receive no tangible reward. “We surveyed the volunteers,” Sanvick said, and “76 percent said ‘We’re volunteers. Don’t spend the money on us.’”

Paid staff accept donations and do the cashiering. “We pay a livable wage,” Sanvick said. Some employees are sponsored by Washington County, as part of their process to get people work-ready.

Starting two years ago, Family Pathways accepts credit cards. The credit card fees paid have an up side:  payment is guaranteed by the credit card company. When a customer writes a check, TeleCheck guarantees payment if the check passes their inspection.

Family Pathways moved from the Northland Mall on Lake Street to their new, larger store, also on Lake Street, in December of 2010.  The former grocery store at 935 S. Lake Street provides 14,000 square feet of retail space.

Everything from the old store was sold, including some at 90 percent discount, so that the new location would have all new donations.

In the first year at the new location, Sanvick said, sales increased 34 percent, and donations were up 49 percent in 2011 over 2010.

Family Pathways has set a number of goals for the year 2015.

The organization hopes to generate two million pounds of food per year for persons experiencing poverty.  The current level is 1.7 million pounds.

They also intend to recruit and direct 1,400 volunteers to give 85,000 hours of service to help people meet basic needs.  Now the numbers are 1,000 volunteers and 57,755 hours.

They plan to help over 400 seniors with non-medical services, including advocacy, companionship and respite care, so they can live independently in their own homes.

They hope to help 25,000 families per year with life issues, and engage 1,500 youth in safe, nurturing opportunities.

To make these goals possible, the thrift stores need to generate $1.5 million each year.

Goodwill

Goodwill is so big that, instead of interviewing the store manager, reporters are directed to contact a marketing director to request a “talking point document.”

Since 1984, Goodwill/Easter Seals Minnesota has provided employment services for people with barriers to employment, education and independence.

In the past year, over 15,000 individuals received 31,000 services, including job skills training in automotive services, banking/finance, construction, medical office and retail, plus job placement and free medical equipment loans.

Revenues from 27 retail stores, along with other contributions, support these programs at 48 service locations in Minnesota and in Hudson, WI.

The Forest Lake store sells clothes, books, art, and shoes, and has several displays of new merchandise. There are new backpacks for $14.99, and new stereo earbuds for $6.99. Four fitting rooms are available in the store, which is clean and bright. Music is piped in over speakers.

There are two circular racks of just green sweaters, and one of just pink.

Signs on the wall say “more than a store–we prepare people for work.”

One more thrift store in Forest Lake, welcomed by the others. Apparently, there’s room for all.

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