It doesn’t get more rewarding than volunteering on Martin Luther King Day.
I should correct that and say it doesn’t get any better than volunteering and being surrounded with some genuine bleeding hearts who decided to devote some of their holiday afternoon to give back to society, rather than just chilling at home or spending it with friends.
I got to see this spirit of generosity up close and personally at the Clock Tower Thrift Shop, one of many destinations where Islamic Relief USA had volunteers as part of Martin Luther King Day – Day of Service. The store is in a modest building on the corner of a residential street and a busy roadway in Falls Church The area outside the front entrance seemed to be decorated with nary every kind of chair…sofas, wooden chairs, leather, folding chairs, etc.
Inside was even more interesting, a combination of a time-warp and an antique store. It was a collector’s haven filled with dishes, DVDs, CDs, figurines (my favorite was a George Burns statue) jewelry, shoes and clothes, furniture, books, toys from a bygone era, among other items too numerous to mention.
As the person charged with making sure all volunteers sign in, I got to speak with each individual personally. It was a perfectly diverse volunteer group: White, Black, Muslim, non-Muslim, mother, father, son, college students, hijabis, non-hijabis.
But even more admirable than the make-up of the helping crew was their creativity and dedication to making something better than the way they found it.
As several customers kept entering and leaving the narrow aisles, these volunteers were busy organizing the items on shelves to make them more presentable to potential shoppers. One group was stacking the plates neatly, in accordance with their colors or patterns. Another group consisted of two sisters who were in charge of organizing numerous books.
“We’re trying to make it more pleasing to the eye,” said Jennifer Medina.
For starters, they organized the books based on fiction or non-fiction. It would be seemingly impossible to categorize the books alphabetically. But they decided to organize them at the very least by subject, from authors as diverse as Bob Woodward to Ivana Trump, the current president’s ex-wife. It was a sensitive task, given how you couldn’t put all the books on the floor, as many of them were Bibles. The other minor problem was that many books were too tall to fit vertically in the shelves. Jennifer’s solution: stack them horizontally. They still looked good.
Another group of friends and college students helped organize and hang mostly women’s clothes on steel racks in another section of the store. Many of them had volunteered before at events involving food distribution, but this was their first time at a thrift store. They all found it rewarding, in that they got to see the results of their efforts right away.
A more presentable store could only help attract more customers. Granted, the store isn’t exactly hurting for a larger clientele, as several customers walked through the narrow aisles on this particular weekday afternoon. But if even more people come and purchase more trinkets, some of the most vulnerable populations will benefit. That’s because all proceeds from the thrift store go to the Northern Virginia Family Service, which supports programs in several areas: early education, homelessness, medical services, job training, and several other things.
“We are a very popular store,” said lead sales assistant Alex Brahmstedt. “We get a lot of donations.”
Brahmstedt was particularly grateful to a father-son team, Jamal El- Hindi and Jamal El-Hindi Jr. of Vienna, who spent much of the afternoon lifting hardwood dining room furniture, such as tables and China cabinets.
“They were receptive. They were an extension of my own arm,” Brahmstedt said. “They worked very hard, making use of every available space (to fill with furniture).”
He was particularly pleased that the volunteers toughed it out despite less than ideal weather.
“It was really cold this morning, but they didn’t quit or say they can’t handle it. It really fast-forwards the time.”
Store officials said they would welcome a regular volunteer presence at the store, as there always is work to do and the store becomes even busier during the warmer months.
“There is never a dull moment,” said sales associate Felita Carrasco.
This way, volunteering becomes ingrained in people’s lifestyles…and not just something they do once a year.