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image Alecia Pacheco, manager of St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Ruskin, shows how she uses plastic shower curtain hooks instead of hangers to save money

Donors leave but needs get more desperate

By PENNY FLETCHER

The heat turns up in the summer for organizations that help the needy. Heat as in “pressure” that is.

“It’s the saddest time of the year for so many,” said Pastor Dora Cruz from the Lord’s Lighthouse in Ruskin. Speaking from her hospital bed in Tampa General Hospital just days after having surgery, Cruz was still anxious to be interviewed.

“Anything that will help those who cannot help themselves,” she told me.  “The farm workers have no work and the snowbirds go back up North. There are always unmet needs in the summer.”

But it’s not just farm workers who need help.

Alecia Pacheco, manager of Ruskin’s St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store which is run by the St. Anne Catholic Conference, has come up with several new ways to help the needy without embarrassing them.

First of all, she and her volunteers have completely rearranged the inside of the store to look like a department store. But she had to use some unconventional techniques to get by with too little money and manpower to serve growing local needs.

Lacking shelving but unable to pay the $300 (each) for metal store-type shelving to go on top of hanging racks, she took old inch-wide shelving strips from the walls and spread them about six-to-eight inches apart and covered them with cloth. Bolted on top of the hanging racks, these can hold lightweight items such as shoes, toys and pillows, and are at a height that can be reached by customers.

Putting bins and baskets of underwear and socks in the back of aisles of clothes racks enables the homeless and other poor who need them to look through the things they can get for free without being watched by other customers, Pacheco said. “Here they don’t have to feel threatened by anything.”

Another new trick she has developed is to use plastic shower rings that come 12 to a pack in the Dollar stores instead of hangers. Not only is it much cheaper for hanging clothing on racks, but people do not have to remove them to hold out the waist and judge the size.

“We don’t have the people to go around picking things up and putting them back on the shelves and hangers all day,” she explained. “This way, people have a pretty good idea whether it will fit or not before they take the pants or whatever off the rack.”

While there is always clothing for adults, especially women, there is a consistent lack of men’s shoes and children’s clothing and other kids’ items.

“We can’t forget the children,” Pacheco said. “The older generation knows about reuse and donating, but they don’t. And if they don’t learn as children, there won’t be donations when they’re the adults.”

Back-to-school is an especially hard time for families, she said. The store is about to get more involved with that.

Right now, there are events that give away back-to-school items like notebooks and pencils, back packs and new clothing to farm workers at several local farm worker agencies, but everybody who needs these things isn’t in the farm worker population.

Staff and officers at St. Vincent de Paul hope to change that soon.

“School is hard enough on the kids, especially the poorer kids,” Pacheco said. “If they don’t have the clothes and back packs and things like the others, they get laughed at. There’s enough pressure for them without that.”

Middle and high school clothing and items are especially needed, she said. “We have a generation gap in our donations.”

It is easy to see that on the shelves.

Since the store was organized to resemble a department store, clothing is divided by size and style, with boutique- office wear- in one place and outside work and play clothes in another. The children and teens’ sections need things now. Dishes and pots and pans are often displayed in a setting to appear like a dining room or kitchen counter.

“It’s these small touches that take the time but they matter,” Pacheco said.

Volunteers have put plants outside and done other landscaping. Soon other volunteers said they will paint the interior of the store, which is located by turning east on 11th Ave. N.E. just south of St. Anne Catholic Church off U.S. 41, then turning left at  the dead end and going one block.

Meanwhile across town, Doreen Rivera, office manager at the Lord’s Lighthouse on the corner of State Road 674 and Ninth Street SE on the property of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Ruskin, says they are mostly lacking in items that cannot be purchased by food stamps.

While clothing and non perishable foods are always needed for the Community Cupboard – there and the one operated at St. Anne Catholic Church and others around the area, mostly people ask for things like toiletries, shampoo, laundry detergent, and soap.

When people donate time and money this summer, they can be sure they are giving to worthwhile causes in South County no matter which recipient they choose.

“We even see people come in who have to go to a funeral who haven’t got proper clothing so we have given them suits,” Pacheco said, showing a rack of ties. “It’s bad enough to have to bury a loved one. But think of not having any clothes to wear to their funeral.”

Coming away from talking with several people who work with South County’s poorest residents every day can give you a feeling of independence and joy just to be able to drive to a place where you have a roof over your head in a car that’s fit to run on the road.   

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