Vergennes charity is finding results are sweeter

VERGENNES — After some rocky times during the recent recession, the Vergennes Main Street nonprofit Sweet Charity is enjoying its most productive year.
The eight-year-old charitable venture, run by members of the Women of Wisdom organization, has in the first seven months of 2015 given away more than $30,000 that was raised from the sales of donated furniture, decorations and other household goods out of its Ryan Block storefront.
That amount already exceeds what Sweet Charity has given away in any other year, said Women of Wisdom President and founder Liz Ryan. Those donations go to Hospice Volunteer Services, charities focused on women and families, and individuals in need.
“Here it is our eighth birthday, and this year is a banner year,” said Ryan, a Waltham resident. “We’ve been able to stay even with or increase our monthly growth this year, 2015, more than any other year. There are a number of reasons, I think, but mainly people know about us. The word is out that we’re here and we’re open every day.”
The sales are made out of Sweet Charity’s 141 Main St. storefront, plus a basement space below that Ryan called a “treasure trove of knick-knacks” and a nearby rented garage for most larger furniture pieces.
Ryan said Sweet Charity’s success depends on a web of donors, buyers and supporters. Ryan and her husband, Tim, own the Ryan Block, for example, and she noted Tim is one of many significant others who chip in more than moral support to Sweet Charity.
“He’s never raised the rent, and we probably pay not so much compared to other businesses on Main Street,” she said. “It’s remarkable how much many of the spouses are giving.”
Two other women’s families provide garage storage space, and the owners of Town & Country Self Storage donated a unit for Sweet Charity to tuck away winter holiday items. Group members use their own vehicles and time to pick up donated furniture and goods, sometimes with help from other community volunteers and Northlands Job Corps students.
“It’s a convergence of generosity by so many people that make this work,” Ryan said.
Then there are those who donate and purchase.
“It is really this wonderful generosity from donors, and then there is the other side of it, when people come in and show their generosity in purchasing,” Ryan said. “It’s just so satisfying to see the good that is happening here. It’s a fulfilling thing to do. When we’re lifting those couches, and they’re really heavy, and our knees are buckling, this is worth it.”
The Women of Wisdom — Julie Basol, Meg Brash, Poppy Cunningham, Joyce Hawes, Nancy Klopfenstein, Liz Markowski, Mary McKinnon, Patty Paul, Jeannie Pelsue, Martha Redpath and Ryan — meet quarterly to deal with the proceeds over and above overhead (mostly rent, one salary, some advertising and utilities).
Half of it by charter goes to Hospice Volunteers Services. A portion of the rest goes not to organizations, but to help meet individual needs.
“We’re talking about women who need rent money. In the winter there are always requests for fuel. There are always requests for gas transportation, and this always comes up when the breadwinner in the family has fallen ill,” Ryan said. “One big request that keeps coming up, and we averaged it out, and it comes up twice a month, is a woman asking for dental care. It’s huge.”
Sweet Charity proceeds have also gone to nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, Vergennes Union High School groups, the Vergennes Food Shelf, the Addison County Parent-Child Center, the John Graham Shelter, WomenSafe and Porter Hospital.
For a few years, however, the members of Women of Wisdom wondered if they were going to keep the venture afloat. They opened Sweet Charity in August 2007, and all went well for a year or so. Then the recession struck.
“When we opened up in 2007 and went right through 2008, were we on a roll,” Ryan said. “It was just coming in and people were so excited about this new shop, and it was great. It was at the end of 2008 the gross income declined dramatically. And then 2009, 2010, not very good. And in fact, 2011 or 2012 might have been our worst year.”
In 2012, the economy started showing signs of life, and the group also met and came up with a new approach, one that Ryan said still serves Sweet Charity well. On every Monday four volunteers do all the donations collection and also rearrange the store’s goods, to freshen the shop’s looks, relying on retail veterans like Markowski, Paul, Basol and Brash to do so.
LIZ MARKOWSKI, LEFT, and Liz Ryan pick up donated furniture onto a trailer for their Vergennes shop, Sweet Charity recently. Sweet Charity sells furniture and other donated household items and gives the proceeds to charity.  /  Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“That’s when we revamped, and looked at it again to see what we could do differently and started this Monday all-volunteer day, getting a lot more volunteers in here working the store. That really was the big element, the big push on Monday really set the tone for the week,” Ryan said.
That changed approach helped Sweet Charity bounce back, and has made a long-term difference, she said.
“They just make the store look fantastic every week,” Ryan said. “If you came in today and then came in the following Tuesday, it will look different.”
Now that Sweet Charity is helping more people than ever, Ryan said couches and coffee tables feel lighter on Mondays.
“We were working hard, and we weren’t able to give much money away,” she said. “And now we’re still working hard, but now we’re giving money away, oh, happy day, I’ll tell you. It makes all the running around and the hard work all worth it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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