BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
At the Diocese of Owensboro’s 2014 Chrism Mass, Barbara Fitzhugh introduced herself to her incoming new pastor and suggested a plan that could change the lives of countless people in Edmonson County.
Barbara Fitzhugh, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist in Sunfish, told Fr. Tony Bickett that there were virtually no community assistance resources in that area.
She – and her husband, Dwayne Fitzhugh – wanted to open a nonprofit thrift store to serve the community.
Fr. Bickett said yes.
The parish bought an old house in Brownsville, and volunteers worked over the next two months to transform it into a store.
They opened St. John’s Thrift Store in November 2014, “with no money and nothing but guts and brains – well, no brains,” said Dwayne Fitzhugh with a wry smile. “But that’s how we got started.”
To be truthful, the store didn’t actually open with “no money.” No, they had a full $77 to their name when their doors opened that November.
But the Fitzhughs and fellow parishioners knew their goal in opening the thrift store: they wanted to help people purchase clothes and other basic necessities.
And nearly four years later, St. John Thrift Store has remained true to its mission.
The items – including clothes, toys, books and housewares – are all donated. Each item is listed for a few cents, though if something has a higher value, “we will raise it up to maybe $5,” said Barbara Fitzhugh, who is the store manager.
The majority of workers are volunteers (including the Fitzhughs), and others receive wages through state-funded programs.
Barbara Fitzhugh said that while the parish owns the store building, no money goes to the church, and vice-versa.
Feeding the hungry
The thrift store is also known for its food pantry, which opened in May 2016 in a separate building behind the store.
Barbara Fitzhugh said most of the food they provide comes out of Feeding America, a nonprofit network that helps supply food banks across the United States: “Feeding America has been really good to us.”
The food pantry turns to the open market to purchase items not available through Feeding America.
They offer a free voucher to the local Save-A-Lot to provide milk, bread, eggs and cheese, “in addition to the food we give them,” said Barbara Fitzhugh.
She said they have helped some people who are technically over the income limit, “but things happen.”
“You use your common sense,” she said, while adding that they coordinate with other local assistance agencies to make sure no one is taking advantage of the system.
The store and food pantry are widely supported by the community, said Barbara Fitzhugh. It also helps that people know “it stays within the community,” she said.
As hard as it is to turn people away, the nonprofit retains a strict rule of only providing assistance to Edmonson County residents (though, of course, anyone may shop at the thrift store). They do, however, keep a list of resources in neighboring counties to provide alternatives for out-of-county visitors.
A community helps out
According to the U.S. Census Bureau approximately 22 percent of Edmonson County’s population is considered to be living below the poverty line.
From November 2014 through April 2018, the store had provided $32,952.50 in assistance to people in Edmonson County. In that same period, the food pantry had provided $19,919.98 in food.
And in a county where Catholicism is in the minority, this is noteworthy.
This year, in fact, St. John’s Food Pantry is doing a summer feeding program in collaboration with Brownsville Missionary Baptist Church.
Barbara Fitzhugh said that while some Protestant churches avoid contact with the Catholic-based nonprofit, this Baptist church’s pastor, John Chidester, has told her “we’re all working for the same thing.”
Jeremiah Bush is the organist at St. John the Evangelist Parish, where Barbara Fitzhugh serves as the bookkeeper and as a cantor. Bush is also a volunteer at the thrift store, and has seen great ecumenical strides made because of the store.
“It is worth noting that we’re not all Catholic – some of us are Baptist,” said Bush.
Nearby Catholics are quick to assist as well. Fr. Steve Hohman, a pastor in neighboring Grayson County, calls the thrift store every year to donate the leftover items after St. Paul Parish’s rummage sale.
Treating people right
Years prior, the Fitzhughs ran a trucking line and Barbara Fitzhugh was also the bookkeeper for a grocery store. These experiences equipped her to oversee St. John’s.
But business expertise is only a piece of what has made the little store so successful.
Barbara Fitzhugh said “the way you treat people” is what matters – whether they are volunteers, customers or people seeking assistance.
“We take care of our people, because without these people, we couldn’t function,” she said of the volunteers, for whom she has been known to cook up a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs.
When people come to seek assistance, Barbara Fitzhugh said she meets with them privately: “That’s nobody’s business.”
Vickie Walker, who runs a food pantry in Edmonson County for adults age 60 and up, said the Fitzhughs are a “great asset” and “do an outstanding job for our community.”
“I feel honored to know such a great couple,” she said.
A day in the life
On a recent Tuesday morning, St. John’s Thrift Store workers went about their daily tasks of sorting items and assisting customers. The store had a fresh, clean smell welcoming customers, which was later accentuated by the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee.
Customers trickled in and out, many greeted by name by the volunteers.
Trease Moon paused in sorting donations to say that her favorite part about working at the store is “helping people.”
“We have people who come every day who are regulars,” she said.
Sue Kalbfleisch, waiting on customers at the register, said she has befriended a number of visitors to the store.
Kalbfleisch’s eyes lit up as she told of a family who “came by a lot this summer;” a family with little boys who were particularly excited to see the selection of movies.
As happy as they were to talk about the store, the volunteers didn’t dawdle.
They had a community to serve.
Copyright © 2018 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic