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Lee Cataluna

Revenue from thrift store dresses up kids for school

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The effects of the recession are playing out in the thrift store, where volunteers are seeing a surge of customers looking for bargains, fewer donations of high-end items and more people shoving dollar items under their jackets and running out without paying.

The Assistance League of Hawaii is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, and members say their work is needed more than ever. The charitable organization runs four major programs, including free one-on-one tutoring at public schools and Operation School Bell, which provides new school clothes for hundreds of children in Hawaii every year. The money for their work comes primarily through their thrift store, 1505 Young St., run solely by volunteers.

"With so many more customers shopping, we’ve had to increase the number of volunteers members to staff the store each day," said Assistance League member Louise Samuel. "Sales have never been better."

Needs have never been greater, either. Each year, the organization provides new jeans, shirts, socks, shoes and underwear to needy children. This year, 1,500 Hawaii kids were served by Operation School Bell, an idea that came from an Assistance League founder, a teacher who believed that kids’ self-esteem and focus improved if they had neat, clean clothes for school. Recently, some teachers have told Assistance League members that they keep the new clothing at school for certain students "because if the kids took them home, the parents would sell the clothes for drug money," said Assistance League member Dot Mason.

Rather than discouraging their efforts, this sort of story only convinces League members that the kids need them more than ever.

They get thank-you notes from the children every year, some so heartbreakingly earnest that it makes it all worthwhile. One boy thanked them for the new shoes and for the box they came in. He had never owned shoes that came in a box before, and he vowed to take good care of both the shoes and the box.

At the thrift store, they’re seeing even well-heeled donors affected by the economy.

"There are fewer high-end, expensive items being dropped off in our donation bins. We surmise that some donors are choosing to hold on to many of their beautiful clothes, purses, shoes and other fine items rather than donate them to the thrift store and then head for the mall or other upscale stores to shop for replacements," Samuels said. "Many people are making do with what they have. Aren’t we all?

In celebration of its 40 years of helping the community, the Assistance League is planning specials in its thrift store through the month of April. Go to for updates.


Lee Cataluna can be reached at

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