Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Alex Ross 

Hi-Line Living: Havre's Haven: Helping fulfill needs


November 24, 2017

Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

Jolene Ophus said she often wants to save the world.

"I would save 400 orphans if I could, but I don't have the money or energy," she said.

As manager of Havre's Helping Haven, a thrift store in the basement of the Havre Central High School on the 400 Block of Sixth Avenue, she makes a difference for people who are in need of clothes and other basic needs.

Ophus said 100 customers have come into the store every day the store has been open in the last six weeks.

And as of last week, the number of days the store is open has been expanded from three to five.

Professional attire and casual wear alike hang on the store racks, blue denim pants ranging from infant to plus size are folded on tables and shoes line shelves along the walls. Kitchenware, small kitchen appliances, vintage home decor, ceramic items and bowls stand all in messy heaps. Plastic totes overflow with tins, Christmas decorations and toys.

People can fill a shopping bag of clothes for under $5, although some name brand apparel in good condition might cost slightly more.

Few people, Ophus said, leave the store empty-handed or with only one bag.

"This is a recycle," Ophus said. "If you don't have some that fit, come get some that do."

Ophus said that keeping the store open for the first years was difficult.

She started the store as a way to help people facing economic hardship or people who suddenly became foster children in need of clothes.

Initially, Ophus said she had hoped to buy a building for the store, but couldn't find one at an affordable price.

The Rev. Daniel Wathen offered Ophus the space in the basement of the former school until she could find another spot, if Ophus covered the cost of utilities.

Before the new store could open, though, the space had to be gutted, things hauled out, walls repainted and utilities restored.

Sherwin-Williams Paint Store donated multiple cans of paint, while Montana State University-Northern students made the clothing racks.

Monetary donations were sought from customers when the store opened in March 2015, but few people gave.

"We didn't have any money we begged for donations just to pay our liability insurance," Ophus said.

People would also get mad at Ophus, because they confused her store with the Giveaway House, a decades-old nonprofit in North Havre that used collected and gave away used items.

Havre's Helping Haven took up that entity's work after it essentially closed after a few years of disputed ownership and management.

Ophus said that despite the challenges she faced, she was able to persevere because Wathen told her it would work out.

"He had such faith in me," Ophus said.

The shame associated with shopping at a thrift store, she said, kept many people away. Donations would be dropped off at the store, but items received were in poor condition.

It was about a year before the store would receive a steady flow of donations.

Almost three years later, though, word of mouth and an end to the stigma associated with shopping at a thrift store has brought the store more customers and an influx in donations.

Ophus said the store now receives many donations of items that are practically brand new.

The volume of donations, Ophus said, has increased to the point that she is running out of room.

"We are outgrowing our space. That is a problem," she said.

Ophus said the store is more successful than she thought it would be.

The increased customer traffic and donations, however, does not mean the store is flush with cash.

Money generated from items sold at the store - generally at $5 or less for bags of clothes - cover the cost of utilities and insurance.

The store has two paid employees, including Ophus herself, who receive small wages. The store is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit governed by a board of directors who handle the bills and must approve any spending.

Ophus said a few churches anonymously donate money to the store, including one that gives $2,400 annually.

Ophus said about 90 percent of the people who haul in bags full of clothes, unpack or fold items, assist customers and keep the store clean are volunteers,

Volunteers comes from a wide range of backgrounds, Ophus said.

She said that she typically has 10 to 12 volunteers, adding that many people do it for six months and then leave,

Some volunteers are retirees, others college students providing community service for certain classes, others are high school students have volunteered hours for a class or scholarship.

People who have to do court-ordered service can also volunteer at the store. However, Ophus said, they cannot be dangerous felons.

Other people who volunteer are individuals who, because of personal circumstances in their life, cannot work a steady job.

Ashley Adlesperger said that as a mother of two young children she doesn't have the time to work, but she can volunteer a few hours a week.

Adlesperger began volunteering about three weeks ago, after she had come to the store to find clothes to use for her son's Halloween costume.

Ophus said people who need clothes but don't have money can work for them.

"I will make them haul garbage or whatever, sweep and mop floors or whatever," Ophus said.

People who need things, she said, often feel better if they work for it.

Ophus said she is never lacking in volunteers.

"When I am stressed out and think I am running out of volunteers, that is when two or three more show up," she said.

"Sometimes there are just so dang many of them, we are going in all different directions," Ophus said.

Mike Gutshall is the only other paid employee. The 31-year-old father did not have a job when he began as a store volunteer in August.

He began volunteering when his then-wife told him the store needed someone to haul boxes to the dump. He then asked Ophus if they needed a full-time volunteer.

The volunteer post eventually became a job.

"I think the one thing I like about it is when somebody comes in and asks if we have a coat or shoes or something, and I am able to deliver that for them, it is the smile on their face that makes the work all worth it," Gutshall said.

He said Ophus is the best person he has met during his time at the store

"She took a chance on giving someone like me a place to work," Gutshall said. "If it wasn't for her, I would still be looking for a job."

Ophus said her customer base is just as diverse as the people who volunteer in the store.

"You don't need to have a hardship to think that you can come in here and shop," Ophus said. "We don't ask you your financial status."

In addition to people who are in tough economic conditions and foster families in need, she said, her customers also include middle- and working-class families looking to save money, hoarders and people who love to rummage.

"There are hoarders who don't even need this (stuff) but are addicted to yard sale-ing and things like that," Ophus said.

Carrie Tomaskie of Havre, a self-described thrift store enthusiast, says she is a frequent customer and donor to the store.

"I love it here," she said. "I think it's a great thing for this community and it helps a lot of people out."

Ophus said some of her most frequent customers are people who work for the railroad or roofers looking for work clothes.

Though the bulk of customers come from Havre and surrounding communities, Ophus said, people also flock to the store from elsewhere.

People from Kalispell, Billings, Great Falls, Glasgow and elsewhere stop by the shop.

Ophus said the shop receives a lot of strange items.

"We get all these old, gross things in and say 'yuck who would want this, this is from the '70s,'" she said.

She said has a customer who buys old men's sweaters which she then uses to make beds for pets.

Another customer, who makes candles, comes to the store to buy all her supplies.

Ophus said that she does have regulars who do just stop by to socialize or tell them about their problems.

"A lot of them tell me it is their therapy. They love it down here," Ophus said.

Some people still complain, but they are now outnumbered by people who compliment, Ophus said.

She said that recently a mother of three children who has medical problems and can no longer work came in. Ophus said the woman said she was initially embarrassed to come down to the store but did so at the urging of her mother.

"And she said 'by the saving grace of God you have helped me so much that I don't know what I would do without this place,'" Ophus said.

Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

In addition to the good, though, Ophus said, there are some frustrations. One of the biggest is how people leave couches, dressers and other furniture outside the store entrance.

Ophus said the store does not accept furniture and when saddled with it, they have to take it to the dump or beg someone to take it.

Food should not be donated and people should not donate clothes that are in a condition that they themselves would not wear them.

She said the items needed most at the store are microwaves. vacuums, linens, silverware and shoes.

Havre's Helping Haven is open Tuesdays and Thursdays 9 a.m to 5:30 p.m. and Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

When the store is closed, people can also drop off donated items in the large wooden box at the store entrance.


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