Southwest Emergency Services has reversed course on a 30-year tradition of giving away clothes and created a thrift shop that charges customers a nominal fee.
"We're struggling to stay afloat," SWES director Betty Okonski said Nov. 8. "Yesterday, we made $60. If we could do that five days a week, that would be great."
Located on the Maple Avenue campus of Arbutus United Methodist Church, SWES has raised about $1,000 since opening the shop after Labor Day, Okonski said.
A pair of jeans costs $2 and a winter jacket costs $4, Okonski said, noting the prices are lower than those at a Goodwill store, for example.
The prices could sometimes drop even lower, Okonski noted, if the store has a surplus of a particular item that means it can offer a sale.
On Nov. 11, Okonski announced to customers in the store several times that the prices of fall jackets were $1 and short sleeve shirts were 50 cents.
"All of the money that we earn is going right back into the community to help people," Okonski said.
For those who can't afford to pay for the clothing, Okonski said her organization will provide three sets of clothing for each person in the household at no charge if they have a referral from SWES, the St. Clement food pantry, Spring Grove State Hospital Center or Key Point Health Services.
"Our clients who really need, we're not hurting them," said the nonprofit's longtime leader. "We're still serving them."
SWES gives the money raised to help people pay for necessities, such as evictions, prescriptions and utilities, said volunteer Linda Klein.
In addition to raising money, charging for the clothes prevents some of the clients from taking more than they need, Okonski said.
"People were scooping (clothes) off the whole rack," Okonski said. "People who were doing that, we've almost eliminated them.
"Now it's neat. People aren't grabbing."
Among those noticing a change was Daniel Strecker, who volunteers at the front of the store bagging and tallying purchases.
"Before people would just walk in and take an armful of clothes and didn't even look at the size or anything," the Arbutus resident said. "Now, it's a lot better. It's a lot calmer in here."
Okonski said most people, including customers, appreciated the change.
She admitted she has run into some resistance. She mentioned one long-time donor balked at the change, and some clients have had a hard time adjusting to paying for something they once got for free.
"I understand why they're doing it, but before it used to be free," said John Juskelis, of Arbutus, as he browsed through a rack of shirts. "It doesn't seem as charitable to me."
Barbara Wilinski said she thought the transition to a thrift shop was a change for the better.
"People were abusing it. They were taking a whole lot more and not sharing with other people," said the Arbutus resident. "Now the clothes are cheap enough where you can still come here and shop."
The thrift shop is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon. In addition, the store is also open on the first Wednesday of each month, 6-8 p.m.
The organization still needs volunteers.