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Thrift store bolsters church’s multiple ministries

LEESBURG, Fla. (BP) — A central Florida church has expanded its thrift store to an empty downtown building to better offset costs entailed in its ministry to needy people.

“Some good things come from an economic downturn, and this is one of them,” executive pastor Art Ayris said.

For several years, First Baptist Church in Leesburg operated a small thrift store about a half-mile from its campus. After a nearby furniture store closed and remained empty for a while, it became available for lease/purchase. The church leaped at the chance to move its thrift store to a larger, more visible location on four-lane North Boulevard in Leesburg, a city of 20,000 people.

The 20,000-square-foot building needed some work, so volunteers — including some residents of the church’s men’s facility — painted the interior and built a loading ramp while a new parking lot was paved. Now the facility is “a primo place,” Ayris said.

“It is an extraordinary store that our business and sales volunteers have put together. It is a self-starting and self-sustaining business now,” he said.

Ayris estimated that sales of items ranging in price from 25 cents to $300 would reach about $500,000 in 2011. The store provides about $15,000 monthly to First Baptist’s Christian Care Center after expenses, he said.

The center, which includes a benevolence ministry, residences for men, women and families, a medical care facility and a pregnancy center “takes a good bit of money to operate,” Ayris said.

“Income from the store takes huge pressure off the Care Center budget. Without it, we would be looking to cut out some of the ministries,” he said.

Assistant manager Gary Gray said the thrift store “operates like a department store. I feel like we are a niche thrift store because everything is displayed so tastefully.”

He especially credits the work and expertise of three volunteers: Anna Lee, who has “antiqued about 50 years” and designs the boutique area; Howard Jennings, a former business owner who advises on retail sales; and Helena Kaiewe who trains and coordinates the volunteers.

Volunteers not only staff the sales floor and cash registers but also sort donated items in a rear warehouse. The store truck makes 12-15 collection runs a day. Leesburg homeowners often donate leftover items from their garage sales, while senior adults also donate unneeded furniture when they move to assisted living facilities.

Recruiting volunteers is a constant activity for the store. With 15 needed daily to run the store that is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., six days a week, it remains “a challenge,” Gray said, noting that he moves volunteers to where they are needed.

“We make it work,” he said.

Gray said he welcomes the arrival of the area’s “winter people” who will not only increase sales but also swell the ranks of volunteers.

Among the current store volunteers are Richard and Joan Earnest who work on Wednesdays, with Richard on the sales floor and Joan sorting through donations.

“On most days, the work reminds me of ants building a mound,” Richard Earnest said. “Everybody has a job to do and we’re all busy doing it.”

The Earnests recently donated a glass-top dining room table to the store, he said, making a “win-win proposition for all involved.”

“We got rid of something we didn’t need, and the Care Center got money from it,” he said. “I tell you, this is something every church could benefit from doing.”

In addition to many pieces of furniture, the thrift store also has exercise equipment for sale, along with bicycles, appliances, electronics, pianos, an organ, linens, clothing and shoes.

Joan Earnest said the store is a meaningful way to be involved in serving the Lord, meeting people and witnessing, with Richard describing the sales job as perfect for him. A retired salesman with Snap-On-Tools, he said he loves talking to the customers.

“The Lord gave me a gift of gab, and my heart is in evangelism,” he told the Florida Baptist Witness.

Earnest, 73, told of witnessing to a 20-something tattooed couple shopping for furniture and a Filipino man involved in Mormonism.

Although none made professions of faith, he said he was pleased to be able to share Jesus and information about First Baptist Church with them.

“We are not just selling furniture, we are sowing the seeds of the Gospel,” he said.
Carolyn Nichols writes for the Florida Baptist Witness (www.goFBW.com).

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