The Utopian Shopping Experience

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By Ashley Claire Simpson | Photos by Amanda Causey Baity

Good news for people who love shopping: Spending doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. Shopping, to the contrary, can actually be a utopian experience.

For instance, think about the purchases you make at some of your favorite thrift stores. As you benefit from the secondhand price tags, you simultaneously take part in a cause that benefits the greater good. There are several organizations in Prince William County that establish proprietary thrift stores to fulfill
incredible humanitarian missions.

Shopping for Humanity
Thrift stores have been the backbone of vital philanthropic organizations for years. From Goodwill to Habitat for Humanity, some of the biggest names in the nonprofit community incorporate retail into their “business” models.

Founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity—for short, Habitat— unites volunteers to build affordable housing in communities all over the world. It is now the world’s largest not-for-profit homebuilder, with affiliates in roughly 1,400 communities in the United States. Habitat also has presence in 70 different countries. The organization has helped millions of people settle into safe and stable housing. And Habitat doesn’t stop there, either.

“Those who benefit from our work receive financial and home ownership education through our programs,” said Traci DeGroat, president and CEO of Prince William County’s affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. “We make it affordable, but they buy their homes, help with repairs and construction when
possible, and pay a portion of the cost of the repairs. Habitat provides a ‘hand up’ so that people can build strength and stability in their lives. Our programs, which are application-based, teach self-reliance.”

To facilitate explosive growth, Habitat established ReStore, a brand of thrift stores designed to fund operational costs. There are now collectively around 900 ReStores worldwide. DeGroat, however, remembers when excitement about the ReStore concept was just starting to grow.

“In 2002, when I first started working for Habitat, I went to a mid-Atlantic regional conference of Habitat for Humanity affiliates,” DeGroat said, “There were people there from North Carolina, who were spreading the word about their ReStores. There had been a few stores scattered around the United
States, but the affiliates around the Research Triangle in North Carolina were really investing in them and finding success. Their excitement was contagious.”

In 2004, the stars aligned for Prince William County’s Habitat to set up its own ReStore location in Manassas. And the local founding team quickly learned that people in the community really enjoyed the kind of shopping that benefits others.

“It got to the point that we had to put sea containers in the parking lot, and sometimes we just covered things with tarps when they weren’t for sale,” DeGroat recalled. “We had to mark anything we were using with ‘do not sell,’ so that people wouldn’t try to buy it out from under us.”

In October 2017, Habitat launched a second ReStore in Woodbridge. DeGroat said that without these two thrift stores, Habitat simply would not be what it is today for this part of Virginia.

“Both ReStores provide diversified and significant funding for [our local]operations,” said DeGroat, who has been with Habitat for 16 years. “Habitat for Humanity Prince William County completes an average of 18 projects per year. While some projects cost little, others have significant costs, such as those projects associated with purchasing and rehabbing homes through our home ownership program.”

Much like the volunteers swinging hammers and revving up power saws at the construction sites, many people running the show at ReStores are donating their time to do so. There is no shortage of opportunities for people who want to donate their time to Habitat.

“Our Habitat employs 21 people for its construction and ReStore programs,” DeGroat said. “Roughly 1,000 volunteers work with us each year at construction sites and at the two ReStores, contributing about 15,000 hours of time. We’re a construction company, a lender, and a social services provider.
Now we’re a retailer, too.”

Rooted in Faith
It’s no surprise that some thrift stores are established under the aegis of religions that emphasize service and sacrifice. One Manassas thrift store, for example, is run by House of Mercy, a Catholic nonprofit that works to lessen the burdens of locals struggling with overwhelming poverty.

What started in 2005 as a small prayer group is now a growing humanitarian aid organization run by volunteers determined to end hunger in Prince William County.

“The food pantry and the clothing center function as our main ministry, offering free food and clothing to our clients,” said Felice Hilton, assistant director of House of Mercy. “We also offer clothing at reduced prices to the public. House of Mercy is dedicated to serving the poor, marginalized and forgotten by
sharing the message of God’s mercy to others. We offer a variety of programs free of charge to the community. We are nondenominational in our service, so all are welcome.”

The House of Mercy’s thrift store is integral to keeping the organization’s food pantry and clothing center in operation.

“The thrift store is a major program in itself,” said Von Barron, thrift store and donation center manager and volunteer coordinator said. “Through the thrift store, we’re able to fund the many supporting programs that House of Mercy offers: free food and clothing to our clients, free educational classes,
clothing drives, and so much more. We’re able to assist people in Manassas, Bristow, Nokesville and Woodbridge, but we have no boundaries as an organization.”

Taking Care of Business
It would be an easy—but false—assumption that philanthropy belongs entirely to the nonprofit world.

Savers® is a for-profit international chain of thrift stores dedicated to improving the environment. Through its Rethink Reuse® program, the more than 300 Savers stores across the globe—including one in Woodbridge—have collectively prevented hundreds of millions of pounds of reusable materials
from going to landfills.

“Savers’ company purpose is to ‘improve lives through the power of reuse,’” said Mandy Heritage, area development manager for Savers. “We encourage residents in our communities to donate reusable items to nonprofits at the community donation centers located at Savers stores. Savers stores purchase every
item donated to the nonprofit. Items are sorted, and the highest quality items are value-priced to sell. Unsold items are recycled or sold to developing countries. We call it ‘the Savers cycle.’”

Savers provides reliable income to more than 90 nonprofit organizations across North America. Through its partnership program, the Woodbridge Savers allows people to donate goods to Special Olympics of Virginia. In turn, Savers purchases those goods, providing revenue to the Special Olympics of Virginia
to support its charitable mission. The benefactors of Savers initiatives aren’t limited to its store partners, though.

“We also offer great fundraising opportunities for local organizations—schools, sports teams and houses of worship—to earn money by collecting reusable items, which Savers stores then purchase directly. This is our FUNDrive program. It’s a great, green alternative to other traditional fundraising like
having bake sales, hosting car washes, or selling wrapping paper.”

So, while popular brands skyrocket to success and then ultimately fade into oblivion, thrift stores seem to have a way of sticking around. There is so much more than meets the eye to places like ReStore, House of Mercy, and Savers, and what goes on behind the scenes does a world of good—both at home and
on a much larger scale.

Ashley Claire Simpson ([email protected]) is a corporate communications professional by day, but her real passion is learning more about this community and the world by writing. She has been crafting features and human interest articles since her college newspaper days at the University of Virginia.

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