TurnStyles team looks for hidden treasure amid thousands of donations
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Holy Spirit, Overland Park, parishioner Tom White is a stalker.
As a volunteer at Turnstyles, the thrift store of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas in Overland Park, he’s supposed to be on the hunt for donated items that prove the old adage: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
As a member of its elite eBay team, in fact, he’s been trained to recycle that donated “trash” into the “treasure” that will keep Catholic Charities programs rolling — with a little help from cyber-space shoppers.
Not too long ago, for example, White’s eyes kept falling on an odd piece of office equipment in the furniture section of the thrift store.
“It looked like an old adding machine or something,” he said. “They had $3 marked on it.”
The $3 item sat on display for a couple of weeks, but nobody bought it.
Finally, White’s curiosity got the best of him.
“I thought, ‘I’ll see what this thing is,’” he said. “I went to the Internet and checked it out.”
White was shocked at what he found.
The old adding machine was actually one of the first Hollerith punch card machines, built under contract for the U.S. Census Bureau to calculate the 1890 census.
White posted the item online at the TurnStyles eBay store. It was purchased by a California museum for $300.
“I’ve had higher sales,” White confessed. “But that was the most satisfying because I salvaged a piece of history.”
“And I got quite a bit more than $3 for it,” White added.
And that’s what it’s all about.
Since the eBay Team was formed four years ago, it’s sold product in all 50 states and 30 countries around the world, generating more than $56,000 for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
A gold mine
“We’ve got an incredible operation that is just doing phenomenally well, thanks to the support of our volunteers,” said Doug Copland, director of in-kind donations for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
“We’ve got a gold mine going here,” agreed head volunteer and eBay team leader Ron Behm.
Behm, a member of Holy Spirit Parish, came to his position reluctantly. He had no experience with eBay and very little experience with a computer.
But he was recruited for more important qualities — an extensive background in sales and a natural ability to organize and motivate people.
Retired for years from the commercial finance business, Behm was a seasoned volunteer with Catholic Charities when volunteer coordinator Mary Kay Drees asked him to launch TurnStyles eBay.
He agreed to give it a try and got a crash course in cyber sales from two college students interning at TurnStyles for the summer.
“It was the first of August,” said Behm. “And the girls reminded me that they wouldn’t be around for very long, so I’d better pay attention and take notes.”
Behm then proceeded to recruit three other retirees, including White, and the four men struggled together to learn the ropes of managing an online store.
“For two-and-a-half years, it was just the four of us,” said Behm. “Then I got the idea that we should get more volunteers, and each of us take a day with two volunteers.”
Now, when fully staffed, the eBay team consists of 15 volunteers divided into five three-member teams. Each team works one afternoon a week.
“Work” might be a bit of a misnomer, however, if the volunteers’ enthusiasm is anything to go by.
“It’s really fun finding something and making a sale and making a little bit of extra money for Catholic Charities,” said White.
And that’s the way it should be, as far as Behm is concerned.
“Believe me,” he said. “If coming in here and working on eBay is a job for you, you’re not going to be very interested in it for very long, because our pay is not commensurate.”
Sold and shipped
The most enjoyable part of the process, team members agree, is the treasure hunt.
“A lot of times you don’t find much,” said White. “And a lot of times you find a bonanza.”
“At TurnStyles the stuff comes in by the truckload,” said Behm. “If you think you missed something, come back in an hour or two.”
Curé of Ars, Leawood, parishioner Bess Michaelson is on the eBay team and also volunteers in the thrift store on Fridays — that’s when she shops for her product.
“People know I’m on eBay so they save stuff for me,” she said. “Plus, in the sorting room, they know to save good stuff in the barrel. If there’s something you’re interested in, you take it out.”
The barrel Michaelson refers to is a treasure trove of eBay-salable items identified by volunteers as they sort incoming donations.
Behm refers to the sorters as the eyes of the eBay team.
“Bob [Neugent] is the assistant store manager over there and he’s one of my eyes,” said Behm. “Bob brought me an Oakley watch the other day.”
“I just found it randomly in a bag of clothes.” Neugent said. “This is the kind of thing someone will put a $10 price on [in the thrift store]. I bring it here and try to get a little more money.”
The watch sold on eBay for $372.
Once members find an item, the process is to research its value on the Internet, write a description, photograph the item and then finally list it on eBay.
Team members can track bids and answer inquiries from their computers at home.
“We’re pretty flexible,” said White. “You do need to come in [to TurnStyles], but how much of the work you want to do there or at home is up to you.” Through an application called Mission Fish, eBay allows nonprofits to identify themselves as such. Buyers know when they make their purchase that, by doing so, they’re supporting Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
Although developing an eye for valuable items takes time, the learning curve for the sales process itself is not steep.
By the time members have sold, boxed and shipped their fourth item, said Behm, they know what they’re doing.
“I’m proud of the fact that we offer people an opportunity to volunteer their time, and we’ll give them a skill,” he said.
“Our average sale is probably $25 on a listed item,” he said. “But when we have some real personal successes, we try to recognize those individuals.”
Behm has what he calls a “sale of the week” book in which he records the best sales with pictures of team members holding their most valuable finds.
“We try to track the home runs, so to speak,” he said.
Behm also has a bulletin board in the sorting room where he acknowledges volunteers who have found exceptional eBay items.
“The ladies back there are really in- terested in whatever happened to that watch or whatever happened to that teapot,” he said. “So it’s a real morale booster for them to know they found something valuable.”
Some recent home runs include:
• Rogers Brothers antique silver plate flatware — $610
• An antique German grandfather wall clock — $300
• A metal detector — $420
• A George Jensen sterling silver bracelet — $455
• A mosquito magnet — $150
“And those successes don’t come from any particular skill set,” said Behm. “It’s called luck.”
TurnStyles recently achieved the red star rating on eBay, which means it has been rated by 1001 buyers.
“I think all but about five of them gave us excellent ratings,” said Behm. “I guarantee you every automobile company in the country would like to have the kind of ratings we have.”
But Behm isn’t one to rest on his laurels. He’d like to see the eBay team expand and raise even more funds for Catholic Charities.
‘There’s enough inventory here,” he said. “I’d like to have a morning group and an afternoon group.
“It would be great if I could expand from 15 to 30 [volunteers] and get some real productivity going.”
After four years on the eBay team, White highly recommends the experience to other volunteers.
“It’s satisfying in that you learn some new skills, you’re able to help the charity and it’s also fun,” he said.
“Plus, you learn things,” he added. “I didn’t know anything about Hollerith punch card machines.
And now I do.”