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By SHAINA STOCKTON, Staff
The months of hard work put into the Willing Partners thrift store in Galax can be seen in every corner.
Clothes on racks are color-coded and sorted by type in one area, while books are arranged neatly on a wall of shelves in another. Electronics are stacked in one section, and an impressive selection of furniture lines the back wall.
While customers are busy browsing, the sound of work can be heard just beside the entrance as construction on several new rooms are finished, bringing the store’s revamp into its final stages of metamorphosis.
Since Ted Bartlett, the organization’s founder and president, passed the torch on to Kathy Cooley after retiring in September of last year, she has been hard at work expanding the business to help as much of the community as possible, keeping Bartlett’s dream alive.
In addition to re-organizing and departmentalizing each item, Cooley is finishing construction on several new rooms that will serve a variety of purposes, and has made changes to the food bank to offer more privacy for its users.
Willing Partners — a non-profit organization that serves Galax, Carroll County and Grayson County — is made up of two thrift stores, one in Galax and one in Independence, both of which help to fund the organization’s benefit programs.
A food bank is housed in the Galax store, which serves 1,200 to 1,400 households per month, Cooley told The Gazette.
The organization was started by Bartlett 16 years ago in the basement of Bible Baptist Church in the Oldtown community, said Cooley. The food bank was in the church’s basement for several years, feeding more than 500 households per month.
“They had begun to outgrow their space there,” said Cooley, so Willing Partners moved operations to a former pharmacy in the Galax Plaza Shopping Center in 2003, marking this year as their 10th anniversary at that site.
Cooley joined the staff in January 2012 after moving back to the area from South Carolina near the end of 2011. “They were needing a replacement for an office manager, so Ted hired me,” she said.
Cooley had a background in working for organizations that benefitted the community, including Rooftop of Virginia, Twin County United Way and several local churches, so she was not exactly a newcomer to the non-profit world.
“I held a position [at United Way] 15 years ago, serving the public and less fortunate, and it just got into my system,” she said. “It’s still just one of the desires of my heart to keep serving.”
After working in office management, Cooley took over the reigns from Bartlett when he retired from the organization.
Cooley extends credit back to Bartlett for launching the project. “It was his vision and his dream for being able to help,” she said.
During her time at Willing Partners, Cooley already developed several ideas. Two things she prides herself in are her organization and office skills, she said.
She felt that she had something to offer from the beginning. “I wanted to put a woman’s touch to what we were already doing, so the first thing we did was a major house-cleaning,” she said.
Items were sorted through and put into specific departments throughout the store. Cooley described the four categories for donated items. “We have sellables, garbage, recyclables and specialty items, which are reserved for our benefit auctions,” she said.
Departments like men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing; toys; furniture; books; electronics; seasonal and furniture now organize the space much like any other department store. Near the registers, a “free table” is set up to offer practical inventory like Zip-Lock bags to the public, along with a collection point for donated glasses for the local Lion’s Club.
Cooley’s son John lends his expertise with technology. He is responsible for fixing up electronics that are donated before they are shelved for customers.
She saw another opportunity with the food bank, as well. Before, it was set up so that recipients would enter and leave through the front door with their boxes, which Cooley said was not only against compliance issues with the city and fire department, but also lacked anonymity.
“Anyone could drive by and see who was getting a food box,” she said.
Her solution was simple: flipping the direction of the food bank from the front of the store to the back. “We will be reversing the assembly line, and the food bank will go out the back door,” she said. “This provides people with the privacy they deserve, and it helps to keep up better with the number of donations going out.”
The assembly line for the food has also been categorized into separate stacks of food, toiletries and empty boxes for packing.
Practical items that food stamps don’t cover, like toothpaste, paper towels and cleaning supplies, are regularly provided by Operation Blessing, Cooley said.
Grayson County’s store, on Grayson Avenue in Independence, is also undergoing renovations, and Cooley said it had been more of a challenge.
Because of its size, she noted that there is plenty of storage space available in that location. “Anything like that can get out of hand though if you don’t monitor what’s coming in,” she said.
For large donations, Cooley requests that the public call ahead to let them know what’s coming. “Let me get some information on a pickup schedule... we will pick up things if a person cannot deliver them,” she said.
Willing Partners will continue to focus on the food bank and help with emergency situations, like families who have lost everything to a house fire, Cooley said. Her hope is that, through the re-organization, this can be done more effectively.
Cooley led the Gazette on a tour of the store’s new layout, stopping at each department and explaining the process of sorting and stocking the shelves. Donated items are sorted, cleaned and checked to make sure that they function properly before they ever see the shelves.
Unfortunately, the store still has a problem with people dumping donations outside. This is unhelpful for several reasons.
“It is illegal to leave donations here unless the store is open,” Cooley said, noting that on Sundays between 1 and 6 p.m. a truck is parked across from the door, with an employee there to receive and check donations. “Not only is [dumping items] unsightly, but we do not get the opportunity to screen donations.”
Too many times, items left in this manner are unusable, and with trips to the dump costing $50 per ton, these drop-offs actually take money away from the store instead of benefitting it. “We ask the community’s cooperation in not doing that and helping to make this a reputable business,” she said.
Cooley isn’t out of ideas yet. She is also overseeing several room additions to the store, including a larger office, a lounge for employees, a board room, an electronics workshop and private rooms for people who use the food bank.
“The food bank office will have two doors, and a wall that will separate families and give them privacy,” she said. “We will have a wide hallway lined with chairs so clients will have a comfortable place to sit,” she said.
Work to erect the walls for these rooms are provided by Wytheville Community College’s building trades students. “These people need the credits to graduate, so they gave free labor. They have been a God-send,” she said.
Her previous office, she said, was much smaller than her new one, and she mentioned that large families were almost impossible to fit inside. While she waits for her new office to be finished, Cooley has a temporary nook set up in the opposite corner of the store, framed with shelves that form a makeshift wall and double as file storage. And true to form, everything is neatly tucked in it’s place.
The lounge is being built for the much-deserving employees at Willing Partners. Cooley says “we owe everything to them.”
The organization has about 20 employees, 60 percent of whom are senior citizens. One employee is 85 years old and still putting some great work into the store, Cooley said.
“We have a couple of employees, Ellen Robinson and Imogene Monday, who work for us through Goodwill Industries, and they pay their salary,” she said.
And, of course, there are many volunteers, so many that it was nearly impossible to name them all.
“We have Edna Fink, whom I call my food bank coordinator... she has been here since day one. She started in the church and continues to this very day,” Cooley said. “We have Daryl Price, who is a long-time volunteer. Then there’s Warren Holtgrew, a Galax resident volunteer, who comes every food bank day. His main job is breaking down boxes, which he does continually.”
Others mentioned to The Gazette included Blue Ridge Chapel Baptist, which volunteers and does window dressing for the store; Cornerstone Church for help with advertising; Wayne Summers with Operation Blessing and several other staff members and volunteers who contribute their time.
Willing Partners depends on donations, and Cooley also said the agency is affiliated with Feeding America in Salem. She thanked local stores such as the Food City in Galax and Independence, Walmart, Food Lion and Super Dollar for their generous contributions.
Cooley added that volunteers were always needed and welcome, and encouraged interested individuals, churches or other groups to call for more information.
“Volunteers are the backbone of a non-profit,” Cooley said.
After the renovation project is complete, Cooley will be free to focus on other ideas she has come up with, ranging from painting each section of the store a different pastel color, to speaking in churches and civic groups to spread the word about what Willing Partners does.
• Willing Partners is located at 544-D E. Stuart Drive in Galax (Galax Plaza Shopping Center) and at 116 Grayson Ave. in Independence. For more information, call 236-2072 (Galax) or 773-2092 (Independence).