I first met the idea of Second Harvest on a street corner in Aspinwall. I was on my way to Feast on Brilliant, my usual go-to when I’m burned out on cooking or if I have already burned dinner. Bonnie Demotte, the executive director and President of Second Harvest, was on her way to a meeting. She had the plans for the community thrift store in one hand. In the other she held the hand of my toddler as she helped my kids and me safely cross the street. That is the first thing to know about Bonnie. She is always available to help someone in need, even if she is already busy.
Bonnie and I met lifting heavy things in the local CrossFit gym, Alpha Athletics. It is there that I first witnessed her work ethic. She also has the uncommon ability to express joy while doing something hard. Right before each workout began, on cue, as the rest of us were still deciding if we wanted to be there at all, she would shout, “BEST HOUR OF THE DAY!” It was the motivation the rest of us needed to get going, and get smiling. That is the second thing to know about Bonnie. Not only does she know how to find the needs of others, she knows exactly how to respond.
Bonnie and I had not seen each other in months. Yet, we managed to skip the ordinary lines about being “good, busy, but tired,” and got straight to it. That is the third thing. She is not afraid to share what is on her heart.
“We are calling it Second Harvest. Sharpsburg is in desperate need of a new thrift store.”
Within moments I was convinced of the projects worth, its’ potential to transform our community, and my desire to participate. If I am being honest, though, the possibility of reaching the 2 million dollar fundraising goal in a year’s time, and managing to renovate 624 Clay Street into something beautiful left me feeling much less confident.
Even so, Bonnie’s words that day seemed to speak straight to the heart of what my mother had been teaching me for decades. For me, it is in remembering those lessons, that the convincing is done.
I grew up witnessing my mother shop in thrift stores. I shopped in them too, but it is the way she did it that left the impression. She was always hunting for treasures, deals, bargains, or finds of a lifetime. It was never the end result that held my attention, though. It was the exuberance with which she searched, and the delight that it communicated.
“Lets see what we find today!” She would say as she burst through the store’s doors.
Through high piles and long crowded aisles of old clothes we searched together. Safe from labels, and corporate trends, she was teaching me the art of style, the ability to listen to instinct, and to decide for myself what I liked, and why.
So too, was she sharing with me herself.
I remember how she approached the glass counter full of old jewels with the most hope of all.
“I found a really good one!” She would exclaim, as the expression of her face lit the room. She would hold up the item in triumph. I can’t remember what a single jewel looked like. I can, however, remember the exact expression on her face, and the sound of glee in her voice.
The criteria for a “good one” was specific, but hard to exactly pin down. It was clear, however, that her talent for treasure hunting transcended her personal great taste. She seemed to have a special, unspoken ability that could differentiate which pieces had been loved, which ones discarded, and which ones still had something left to say. She wasn’t just finding an old fabulous broach, beautiful bedazzled clip-ons, or long beaded necklace circa 1920. It was as if when she put the necklace around her neck she encountered an entire love story and promised to somehow let it live on.
“I bet the woman who owned this one was really beautiful,” she would imagine with me out loud as the trinket transformed from junk to precious jewel right before my eyes.
The “good ones,” were kept in a specific jewelry box in her dressing room. Hat stands full of vintage finds stood beside it, and long luxurious gowns of old hung behind. It all came out on special occasions. As promised, my mother would tell the entire story as to where it came from, and exactly what inspired her to buy it.
Our house was filled with her treasures.They weren’t just things, though. Entire stories belonged to each of them. Our walls were lined with antiques each enveloped with its own tale. Vintage baby dolls laid about chronicling different eras of childhood play. Oil paintings that cost three dollars hung proudly, and lace doilies anchored second hand sterling silver tea sets. I would wear an old mink fur stole we’d purchased for pennies and a fabulous old high society hat as I filled the tea cups with juice. I had decided the fur had once belonged to a queen, so I couldn’t pretend to sip English tea without it draped on my shoulders. I guess it could be said that my childhood version of a tea party was kicked up a notch.
No matter how many perfect antiques lined our halls, or pristine vintage dresses hung in closets, though the most important lesson of the meaning of thrift stores came from something else entirely.
We never went to a thrift store empty handed. Packed high in the trunk were bags and bags of clothes, toys, household items, and basic necessities. The thing that kept my mother coming back wasn’t the search for her own treasures, but the opportunity to make a really big donation for others.
Counter to the impulse to rid a house of the old and useless by piling it all quickly into donation bags, the things we donated were never old, discarded, or haphazardly packed. In fact, they were usually brand new, and picked with careful thought.
The process of donating began when most would least expect it: Christmas morning. After the last of the wrapping paper settled onto the floor, we began the tradition of choosing what we could give to help someone else. Looking back on this tradition as a parent of five small kids, I can not believe how she pulled it off. How did she manage to have all five of us eager to participate in giving away our newly gotten gifts and not throwing a massive tantrum?
In short, she made it mean something.
“I used to dream a little girl like you would give me one of her old dresses,” the sentence is permanently seared in my heart.
Unlike me, my mother did not grow up in thrift stores by choice. Life in the thrift store was one of necessity. From her first bra to her prom dress, my mother had found it second hand.
She was one of 10 kids growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s. It was a childhood filled with both joy and tragedy. By age 12, my mother relied often on the generosity of others to eat, let alone buy a new dress.
Just recently she shared with me that one of the strongest memories of her childhood revolves around the dress she wore to her little sister, Chrissy’s, funeral. Chrissy had been struck and killed by a drunk driver as a child. My mother was just 11 months older than her.
“Of all the things your Grandma was worrying about, I didn’t want her to worry that her kids didn’t have the right clothes for the funeral Mass.”
So she searched for a way, even if small, to alleviate the pain. With a few dollars and what little hope she had, she walked to the thrift store and begged for miracle.
“It was dark navy with white piping, a Peter Pan collar, and the sash made a big bow in the back. I knew instantly how much Chrissy would have loved it. It was one less thing to worry about, and finding it made me feel like someone, somewhere, was listening. I never stopped thanking the little girl who gave it away.”
The stories told to me by my mother certainly come from painful memories of living without. Yet, it was her ability to express such deep gratitude for the things she found that propelled us towards generosity.
It was our Christmas morning tradition that was the catalyst. It taught us to examine our hearts and find within the power to do good, even if in small ways. The hope of one of our donations being found by a little girl like my mom, or a boy like one of my uncles filled us up with a desire to give beyond what we didn’t need or could no longer use. We started to give the things that would be most fun for someone else to find. New things, special things, beautiful things. Maybe they would be an answer to a wish, or a prayer, or somehow fill a desire that no one thought would be heard.
Thrifting with my mother also helped me to understand the large gap that exists between the ease of my childhood and the much harder reality of hers. In ways that are still revealing themselves to me, those days of treasure hunting in dark and dingy corners of strange smelling second hand havens, also filled me with the desire to help bridge the gap for others.
Thanks to Second Harvest and the incredible team it has acquired, that bridge is being built, right here in the very community in which I was raised, and now, am raising my own.
Second Harvest will certainly provide shoppers with necessities, but so too will it do much more. As a permanent presence in Sharpsburg, Second Harvest will build community. It will be a place to shop and a place to gather. It will also be a place to search for treasures, within the store, of course, but most importantly, within each other.
We continue to defy the 2020 odds, as well as my own doubts, as we approach our 2 million dollar fundraising goal. I am simply blown away at the generosity of this community. The way you have insisted of giving not the minimum, but the very best is as edifying as it is inspiring.
I am confident that as a community we will reach our goal, and together, build something beautiful.
Thank you for reading what makes Second Harvest so special to me. I invite you, too, to experience the treasure of bringing in the harvest.
If you would like to make a donation to Second Harvest please visit us on Facebook or our website at secondharvestthrift.com.