Tuesday night volunteers at the Ladysmith Auxiliary Thrift Store. (Kathleen Bortolin photo)

Tuesday night volunteers at the Ladysmith Auxiliary Thrift Store. (Kathleen Bortolin photo)

Finding community and connection at the Ladysmith Auxiliary Thrift Store

By Kathleen Bortolin

Special to The Chronicle

Waiting outside the Ladysmith Auxiliary Thrift Store, I have Macklemore’s Thrift Shop lyrics running through my head. “I’m gonna pop some tags/only got twenty dollars in my pocket.”

I’m here on a chilly Tuesday evening to shadow my neighbour and local Ladysmith fixture, Tracy Llewellyn, during her weekly volunteer shift. Tracy comes every Tuesday night with her daughter, India — they are part of a small army of volunteers who dedicate time and energy to keeping the Ladysmith Auxiliary Thrift Store stocked and running smoothly.

After a quick tour and a tutorial on what goes on in the fabled back room, I meet Kathy Mah. She emerges slowly out of a side room I hadn’t even noticed. It’s the room with all the breakable knick-knacks, which deepens its mystery. I enter gingerly. As she buffs a vase, Kathy explains that she volunteers seven days a week, working mostly with the china and collectibles, but pitches in wherever needed. She has been volunteering for over ten years, initially she picked up shifts out of boredom. But when I ask her what keeps her here, she says it’s the people, especially the youth. “I get to see them grow and evolve and I really like that,” she says.

Deanna Noonan, an assistant manager, tells me she started volunteering years ago after witnessing an act of empathy. She saw a customer struggling and watched as store volunteers supported the person and enabled them to carry on and shop with dignity. “I knew at that moment that I wanted to be part of this community,” she says. “I dropped off my application the next day.”

Deanna tells me that they have a wide range of volunteers, some over 90 years old, and some as young as 12. “Everyone is welcome. We can support all levels and abilities,” Deanna says.

She notes the store has husband-wife volunteers, mother-daughter volunteers and even twin-sister volunteers. Then she introduces me to Romona, her twin sister! Romana moved to Chemainus during the pandemic, feeling the sting of isolation even more keenly during lockdowns and general doomy COVID vibes. To counter this, Deanna suggested Romona come to the thrift store (apparently Deanna is the “bossy” twin) and she has been there ever since.

At this point in the night, Ed Polachek wanders into the back room. His wife, Marie, has been there all night, puttering quietly in the back. He’s one of the oldest volunteers the store has. Ed has been volunteering for over 32 years and is known for his woodcraft. He makes cutting boards and donates them to the thrift store for sale. He tells me his story of coming to the west coast from Saskatchewan, confirming to me what I already knew — everyone I meet from Saskatchewan is absolutely wonderful. He tells me also about his bottle collecting and donations to Cops for Cancer. He has donated tens of thousands of dollars just from collecting bottles.

When I tell him that I’m going to buy one of his beautiful cutting boards, he disappears into the darkness and returns to give me one of his signature pencil holders. Then he helps me find the best cutting board on offer and tells me I don’t have to pay for it. I overrule him and India rings me up at the till.

As Ed and Marie bid farewell for the night and the rest of the crew cozy around the coffee table for a break of drinks and sweets, Deanna explains that money earned at the thrift store is given back into various health services that will support members of our community. Recent donations include $20,000 to The Ladysmith Community Health Centre for a Sysmex Point of Care Testing Unit; $11.077.50 to the Town of Ladysmith for 6 AEDs; $25,000 to Nanaimo Hospital for ICU equipment; and $22,000 to the BC Children’s Hospital for an ENT Video Rhino Laryngoscope. “Our volunteers take great pride in seeing where the money goes and how they’re contributing to making a difference,” she says.

My last thought before getting into my car to leave that night is that the thrift store is so much more than popping tags and buffing china. It’s a community of wonderful people (from Saskatchewan and other places) who are caring for this community in a thousand different ways, not least of which is taking care of each other and their many fortunate customers. Ladysmith is lucky to have them.