by JD Benning
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — Is it possible to turn someone’s old stuff into a million dollars?
Here in Atchison, the Sacred Heart Variety Store has managed to do just that, raising over $1,000,000 for Catholic education over the last 10 years.
It all started with a simple yard sale.
“Sacred Heart Parish (in Atchison) had incurred a fair amount of debt,” explained Father Jeremy Heppler, OSB, so a few parishioners banded together to have a sale to try and offset as much of it as they could.
“They got to a point and had gathered enough goods that they felt called to establish a permanent store to keep the funding steady.”
In 1999, Donna Willming, along with a few other parishioners, moved the yard sale to a permanent location and the Sacred Heart Variety Store was born. In the years that followed, the store moved around town. But in 2013, organizers had the opportunity to purchase an old furniture store in downtown Atchison, and business immediately started booming.
Theresa McDermed was part of the committee that oversaw the store and served as manager at the time of the relocation.
“I saw great potential with this new space, but when we moved in, there was a lot of concern about having enough merchandise to fill it,” she said. “On top of that, the store had been using ladders and two-by-fours as makeshift clothing racks — they were doing the best they could with meager resources.”
But they didn’t have to worry long.
“Within weeks,” said McDermed, “the place was filled to the brim! It was the best decision the parish could have made. Without the volunteers and all the generous donations, the store wouldn’t exist. We had people offering their time every single day; it’s amazing to see our community come together to support Catholic education. All we wanted to do was help people, and because of the variety store, we could.”
On Jan. 18, the store held a celebration at St. Benedict School in Atchison to commemorate passing the $1 million milestone. Store manager Cheryl Contreras presented a check to Father Jeremy Heppler, pastor of St. Benedict Parish, and school principal Kevin Lunsford.
“Atchison has a strong Catholic community, and the family atmosphere is tangible,” Lunsford said. “Thanks to the generous donations and all the volunteers at Sacred Heart, we receive $477 per student every year. If a student attends our school from kindergarten through eighth grade, that amounts to one year of free tuition per student.”
It’s not just about making money, explained McDermed. The store also gives back when people are in need.
“We had a bed on display and one little girl walked by and said ‘that bed looks amazing!’ So I asked her what she liked so much about it,” said McDermed, “and she replied ‘I don’t have a bed, I sleep on the floor.’
“As quickly as we could, we found a set of sheets and blankets that she liked and she left with a bed, free of charge.”
And it doesn’t stop there — Contreras said they’ve been able to help families in need that have had house fires, families that couldn’t afford Christmas gifts and many more.
“The community makes this ministry possible by donating their old things,” Contreras said, “and we want to make sure that we’re giving back to the community. People are incredibly generous; we get lots of new items and valuable things donated all the time. It’s a wonderful thing that we’re able to give so much money to Catholic education, but it’s even better that we are able to help those in need.”
Father Jeremy is excited for the future of Sacred Heart Variety Store.
“For 25 years, Sacred Heart has been an invaluable asset to our parish and to our community,” he said. “Being a product of Catholic education myself, and having spent many years as a Catholic school teacher — both before and after being ordained to the priesthood — [I know] these funds are critical to carrying out our mission and sharing the truth of the Gospel with our students.
“It’s been incredible to witness the growth of this ministry, and I am incredibly grateful to our donors and volunteers that make it possible.”