Local Ministries

Volunteers are lifeblood of Catholic Charities — especially during pandemic

Joe Gomez inspects a T-shirt in the back of TurnStyles Thrift store in Mission before sorting it into its correct basket. At 82 years old, he continues volunteering at TurnStyles twice a week to help the store serve the community amid the pandemic. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MOIRA CULLINGS

by Moira Cullings

MISSION — They are simple tasks.

Inspect clothing donations. Organize the store. Help customers check out.

But the work of three volunteers at Catholic Charities’ TurnStyles Thrift store in Mission makes a big difference to the community.

“To me, it’s satisfying that I can come in and do a little bit of volunteer work and feel like I’ve contributed to Catholic Charities and am helping the less fortunate in the community,” said Joe Gomez.

“It gives me a purpose,” he added.

Joe volunteers at TurnStyles twice a week with his wife Sheila and their friend Judy Gerling. The Gomezes belong to Sacred Heart Parish, and Gerling attends St. Joseph Parish, both in Shawnee.

Their willingness to continue volunteering and even pick up an extra shift despite the pandemic is a welcomed gift for Catholic Charities.

The organization typically relies on 475 volunteers each month to help at its three TurnStyles stores, which provide donated goods to customers seeking affordable clothing, household products and more.

But the stores closed for a few months earlier this year due to the pandemic, and only 175 volunteers have returned since they reopened.

“Volunteers are essential in keeping our thrift stores up and running,” said Cari Olberding, volunteer coordinator at Catholic Charities.

“We have ensured new safety measures to help keep our volunteers, customers and staff safe, such as wearing masks, cleaning carts and the stores, and installing a Plexiglass barrier at the cash register,” she said.

Sheila Gomez sorts through a clothing rack at TurnStyles Thrift store in Mission. Spending two days a week volunteering at the store gives her a chance to stay active and positive despite the pandemic. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MOIRA CULLINGS

But its shortage of volunteers isn’t the only challenge TurnStyles has faced.

According to Carol Cowdrey, senior director of marketing and media relations at Catholic Charities, in fiscal year 2019, the stores generated $360,000 in net proceeds and goods.

But since the onset of the pandemic, the stores’ average daily sales are down 21%.

This is concerning, since the money TurnStyles raises is put back into Catholic Charities’ various ministry programs, which benefit those in need throughout northeast Kansas.

‘The heart’ of Catholic Charities

Despite the unique challenges this year has brought, TurnStyles stores are getting by, said David Brewer, store manager at TurnStyles in Mission, “thanks in large part to the flexibility of those volunteers who have returned.”

Since the stores reopened, volunteers have processed tens of thousands of donated items, said Brewer.

“It’s been a team effort to cover the gaps,” he said, “and the returning volunteers have really stepped up and given an extra level of effort the past few months.”

Throughout her time volunteering at TurnStyles, Gerling has met all sorts of people — from mothers with small children to men living on the street.

“We’ve had homeless people come in here with no shoes on,” said Gerling. “We had a man come in with bags around his feet when I was here. We had to refer him and get him some help.”

“You can help him with some things,” said Sheila, “but you can’t help him with the big things he needs long-term.”

 Judy Gerling helps a customer at TurnStyles in Mission check out. For Gerling, the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life is one of the many perks she’s experienced during her volunteer efforts. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MOIRA CULLINGS

Volunteers are able to refer those in need to other services Catholic Charities offers — and do so with kindness and compassion.

Brewer said volunteers like Gerling and the Gomezes are “the heart” of Catholic Charities.

“They do everything with love, pride of purpose and consideration for others,” he said, “and that shows through in how they interact with customers, other volunteers and staff.

“They make our work so much easier and infuse it with a grace that staff alone could not give it.”

Although they are in the high-risk category for COVID, as Joe is 82 years old and Gerling and Sheila are in their mid-70s, the choice to continue volunteering despite the pandemic is an easy one.

Not only has TurnStyles implemented strict sanitizing and safety guidelines that give peace of mind, but Gerling and Sheila are nurses who previously worked in health care.

“We’re comfortable with sanitizing and wearing masks,” said Sheila. “Those things are not foreign to us. It doesn’t seem that weird.”

Sheila appreciates the opportunity to get out and help people every week.

“It keeps you busy and you meet lots of nice people here,” she said. “As you get older, it really keeps you mentally and physically healthier.”

Gerling put her thoughts on volunteering simply.

“I’m just so thankful I’m able,” she said, “because a lot of people can’t, and they might want to, but they just can’t do it.”

Ryan Forshee, senior director of store operations, expressed his gratitude for volunteers who have returned to TurnStyles in a time of great need.

“Our volunteers acted quickly and sacrificially to answer God’s call to serve our brothers and sisters in need,” he said. “They have helped to create a true family environment at TurnStyles.

“They each embody what it means to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

How to help

If you are interested in learning more about TurnStyles or volunteering at one of its stores, visit the website here. To learn about other volunteer opportunities through Catholic Charities, visit the website here.

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage its website, social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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