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GreatFinds: A thrift boutique focused on helping the community

A thrift store in Albany is providing more than just second-hand items at affordable prices.

When I enter the store at the corner of Washington Avenue and Henry Johnson Boulevard, racks filled with women’s business attire and paper dresses in the windows grab my attention. But it’s the team behind the register and completing administrative tasks in the back room that give the boutique its charm.

The volunteers take part in mental health programs run by Equinoxa human services organization based in New York’s Capital District. It serves young people, adults, and families who have been impacted by domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health disorders, homelessness, and the challenges of living in poverty and around violence.

The program is big on giving back to the community by partnering with other area support groups to supply vouchers to women in need of business attire. It works through a three-prong approach. The first being training and educating the clients in Equinox’s mental health programs. The second prong is community partnerships, and the third is being a revenue source. Christina Rajotte is the senior director of administrative services and director of development and marketing for Equinox. She says the volunteers and customers are becoming the best versions of themselves with the help of Great Finds:

“The money that's raised through sales goes back into the programs to support our clients in their in their goals and their life endeavors,” Rajotte said.

Susan Taylor has managed Great Finds for 17 years. Before her role at the boutique, she was a teacher and is the artist behind the paper dresses. These skills translate into her managerial role because she views the store as a classroom.

“What's happening is really learning,” she said. “So, training learning, you know, I just see it as OK, ‘Well how did that go today?’ Let's see what we need to do differently another time. So, it's an evolving process, but it is all part of what happens, what we've been doing for 35 years.”

Programs like Great Finds have been around for more than 50 years, according to Dolores Cimini, a New York State licensed psychologist and Director of the Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research at the nearby University at Albany. She believes these programs are important for individuals who have experienced mental health and substance use concerns:

“It gives them a sense of what we call self-efficacy. That is, feeling that they have accomplished something, giving them a chance to earn some income, acclimating them to the workforce,” she said. “Those are some of the many benefits of an organization such as this.”

In addition to useful communication skills, Taylor says the team learns soft skills like teamwork, leadership, and work ethic that are needed to keep the store operating.

“Our primary purpose here is really to have our clerks help us run the shop and capture those soft skills,” she said. “A lot of it is soft skills that is what's going on. And so just comfort with communicating as coworkers communicate, communicating with customers and understanding that approach to the courtesies and just getting teamwork and getting things done and keeping a neat store and there's many layers of tasks going on here.”

Jeff O’Brien has been a team member at the boutique for several years. He found the volunteer opportunity through a day program he was involved in through Equinox. In the store, he and the other volunteers are in charge of helping customers and organizing the racks.

"I'm here twice a week," he said. "We price clothes, we hang the clothes, I run the register, stuff like that.”

Aside from the assistance in recovery the team receives from Equinox, the volunteers at Great Finds hone their current skill sets, build a resume, and start their transition back into the workforce.

Dannie, who did not want to give her full name, is another member of the team. She went to SUNY Plattsburgh for a short time before, she says, she went down the wrong path. Now, as a volunteer at Great Finds, she says the soft skills she learns here are transferable to many careers.

“Well, I could work in any job in retail or any other field for that matter, you know,” she said.

Teammates O’Brien and Andrew Stachowiak share similar ambitions.

"Well, I definitely plan on moving like further down the line to retail or anything like that," said O'Brien.

"For me it's basically get a full-time job after this," said Stachowiak.

Team members gain support and training to be integrated back into the community with an extra level of personal development and treatment for their mental health. Taylor, the manager, knows her team looks forward to getting back into the workforce, but says:

“It's a process of just listening and watching and knowing. First of all, you kind of know it's like the mother bird pushing the baby out of the nest maybe,” she said. “But you do know when someone feels that confidence. It's really more about confidence than pushing them on and do they have the right supports in place to take them to that next step?”

Cimini, the psychologist from UAlbany, says programs like this, if successful, can help enrollees restart their careers.

“My recommendation would be that as long as the program continues to be helpful to the individual by all means it's important for the individual to remain engaged with it,” she said.

Laura St. Claire was once a self-described “displaced homemaker” after a divorce left her in between jobs. She graduated from a program through WERC, which Equinox and Great Finds frequently partner with. They provided her and other graduates with vouchers to Great Finds to get a look-good, feel-good attitude in their new business attire. Now, though, St. Claire is a frequent shopper at the store and an employee at WERC.

“I got a voucher when I went back again and so I have one suit because I didn't need one when I was working from home. My boss said, ‘Maybe you should get some more clothes.’ So here I am,” she said.

“Don’t forget about Joanne,” Taylor tells me.

In the back office of the boutique sits Joanne DiMaria, who has been volunteering at the store for 18 years and is a key part of the team. She is wearing a long gray skirt and blouse with a black hip scarf tied around her waist. Right before I arrive, I see her applying lipstick in a pocket mirror. In recent years, she has been promoted from sales clerk to assistant manager.

Her tasks include filing paperwork for the store and working on the tags that get put on the clothing. She says she gets lots of positive comments about the tags from customers. DiMaria adds the work she does here helps her at home.

“I live in a group home. And we have to take care of chores and the house. I live with 15 people. Also, I love my job. I can't wait until I get to work, because it's exciting here,” she said.

The clothing styles at Great Finds might change, but the purpose of the boutique remains: to assist workers and volunteers alike and provide affordable clothing for women.

WAMC News Intern Samantha Simmons is a senior at the University at Albany graduating this semester with a degree in journalism.

Samantha joined the WAMC staff after interning during her final semester at the University at Albany. A Troy native, she looks forward to covering what matters most to those in her community. Aside from working, Samantha enjoys spending time with her friends, family, and cat. She can be reached by phone at (518)-465-5233 Ext. 211 or by email at ssimmons@wamc.org.