By Kenneth J. Souza
BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — While many people were drawn to local shopping centers and strip malls during the last-minute Christmas rush, the parking lot of a previously vacant storefront on Main Street in Buzzards Bay was steadily filling with cars.
That this was a Thursday afternoon in the middle of the week wasn’t as surprising as the fact that the destination was the newly-relocated St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, now prominently situated across the street from St. Margaret’s Church.
“To be honest, this is slow,” said store manager Mike Powers in between helping a volunteer price an item and cashing out a couple who hauled away a stack of dishes. “We’re doing a lot better here than we thought we would. We knew we’d do OK, but we’re exceeding all expectations.”
“We’ve been very busy since relocating here,” agreed volunteer Carol Mazzarelli. “I think there was just one day last week where I noticed there wasn’t anyone in the store since we opened. And two minutes later, a rush of people came in.”
Previously known as Count Your Blessings and located in a smaller storefront further down Main Street near the train bridge along the Cape Cod Canal, the newly-renamed St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store opened the doors of its expanded 4,000-square-foot location in October.
“This used to be a lumber store, and I think there was a furniture store here at one time,” Powers told The Anchor. “It’s a great location, right across the street from St. Margaret’s Church. It had been vacant for a couple of years before we moved in. The building we were in was small and in tough shape, so we started looking around and we saw this spot. We approached the landlord and he was able to save us a little money on the rent. He knows this is for a good cause, and he’s been really great to us.”
Store volunteer Phyllis Cullinan, who started working at the Count Your Blessings location more than three years ago, said the new site is “the perfect location.”
“We have a great group of volunteers who are all wonderful to be with and we’re helping our neighbors doing good things,” she said. “I like doing good things for other people, that’s the whole idea of it.”
Powers explained how the seeds for Count Your Blessings were first planted by Deacon Ralph Guerra and his wife Sandy several years earlier to support the charitable efforts of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. That modest effort has since grown to include a small emergency food pantry and a busy thrift shop staffed by a group of 15 dedicated volunteers — most of whom are parishioners at St. Margaret’s.
“All the money generated through the store stays right here in the community … and everything (we sell) has been donated,” Powers said. “Basically every dime that’s made in here, other than paying the overhead for rent, stays right in the community and it’s a nice organization in that respect.”
The thrift store sells a variety of affordable used items including everything from clothing and furniture to books, CDs and videos. Donations are welcomed and greatly appreciated, although Powers said they prefer things that are in good condition.
“I know some (St. Vincent de Paul Stores) are different, and a lot of them get donations from retail outlets — but we rely on local donations and volunteer support,” Powers said. “When it comes to certain (furniture) items, if it’s cracked or chipped we don’t feel it’s fair to sell it to somebody. If it’s something that can be repaired, then yes; but if it’s really dinged or roughed up, we sometimes have to get rid of it. We just don’t have the manpower to have anyone here (repair it).”
Noting that similar agencies, like My Brother’s Keeper, have found willing volunteers to repair and fix damaged items, Powers said he would welcome the opportunity.
“That would be great,” he said. “Of course, we’d have to find a space for them to work here. Most of the time we’re so overwhelmed with donations, we can’t take any more. It doesn’t have anything to do with the condition of the items, we just need room to be able to work. It doesn’t do us any good to have a pile of donations hanging around. That would slow us down and be counterproductive.”
Nestled at the back of the thrift store are shelves neatly stocked with non-perishable food items and canned goods. Unlike other food pantries that have regularly scheduled pickup times, this one provides emergency supplies for those who reach out to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
“We assist any people who need emergency type help,” Powers said. “It’s not a regular food pantry where you would come in once a month to pick things up. But we do cater to quite a few people in need of food. A lot of people also need shelter, which the St. Vincent de Paul Society helps with as well.”
Sadly, at this time of year Powers said they see a noticeable uptick in the number of requests for assistance — especially those in need of food and shelter during the winter months.
“Housing is a big thing in the winter because of the cold weather,” he said. “We can put needy families up in a hotel for a week or so. We’ve had people come to us who have been laid off from work and can’t afford the rent. We have no problem with putting them up for a week and giving them food and clothes. Obviously, we can’t afford to continually do that, but we can help them for a week or two until they get back on their feet.”
Powers said it’s not uncommon for the St. Vincent de Paul Society to get between six and eight requests a day from people looking for assistance.
“It’s usually help with rent, heating or oil,” he said. “They might fall behind, and we’ll help them with that, or if they are homeless altogether, we can put them up in a hotel. We help anyone, regardless of faith. We don’t ask any questions, unless they want to tell us, and most of the times they do. We do ask them what they plan to do for themselves after a week or two. We try to emphasize that they need to have a long-term plan, because we can’t support them for long periods of time. We’d love to, but we just don’t have the money. It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up.”
Carol Duchnowski, who has been volunteering with the St. Vincent de Paul Society for the past six months, said she recently was able to help a friend get some much-needed furniture from the thrift store.
“She just took on the challenge of raising her niece and her nephew and it’s been a struggle for her and we were able to get her a couch and some lamps and small stuff and it just made her day,” Duchnowski said. “We brought them all to her apartment and now they have some decent furniture. It’s great that people can be able to come in here and just get the basics.”
Situated along the Cape Cod Canal, Powers said there’s a misconception that the area is somehow more affluent and devoid of poverty.
“I don’t think people realize there are just as many needy people here on Cape Cod as anywhere else,” he said. “I know I never did until I started volunteering here. There are a lot of people in a lot of tough situations out there — and it’s not just being homeless. You might have someone who was doing well a year ago, but they might have gotten divorced or lost their job and just can’t keep up with the rent or mortgage and now they’re trying to start over. There’s a lot of that here.”
That’s where he hopes the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the money raised from its thrift store can be put to good use.
“At this time of year, people think about getting gifts, but I think it’s nicer to give,” Powers said. “And I know people who come here are really appreciative of the help we give them. Sometimes it’s the littlest thing you help them out with. I get a real sense of satisfaction working here.”
The St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store is located at 134 Main Street in Buzzards Bay, directly across the street from St. Margaret’s Church. They are open everyday, except Sunday and Monday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information or to volunteer, call 508-759-7171 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.