Sara Stoesz, left, and Linie Friesen, in the Altona MCC thrift shop which they helped start 40 years ago.
MCC Photo/Tony Siemens

Sara Stoesz, left, and Linie Friesen, in the Altona MCC thrift shop which they helped start 40 years ago.

ALTONA, Man.— Forty years ago, four women in this southern Manitoba community opened a thrift shop to raise funds for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

It was the beginning of a network that has grown to 56 shops in Canada, 57 in the U.S. and has generated contributions totalling $167 million for the work of MCC.

“This is unbelievable—our mustard seed has turned into a big tree and it is still growing,”   exclaimed Linie Friesen, 90, one of the founders of the Altona shop which opened March 17, 1972.

Friesen, who was a regular volunteer at the shop until a year ago, said the seemingly insignificant beginnings of MCC thrift shops and the steady growth reminds her of how the blessings of God can turn small contributions into miraculous growth. 

“I think it has grown beyond our wildest dreams and hopes,” she said. “The Lord has blessed our efforts. It is just a remarkable thing.”

MCC’s thrift shop network will celebrate this 40-year milestone at a conference in Archbold, Ohio, May 7 – 10. This conference, which takes place every four years, brings together delegates from both Canada and the U.S.

Reflecting on the early years, Friesen recalled her friend, Selma Loewen, who had attended the MCC Manitoba annual meeting in February, 1972. There Loewen had heard John Hostetler--director of MCC’s material resources program at the time--report that MCC was reducing shipments of used clothing for overseas distribution.

Hostetler had also made the now legendary statement:  ‘What we need is a machine that will turn clothing into cash.’

Within a few days of the February meeting, Loewen had invited Friesen and two other friends, Sara Stoesz and Susan Giesbrecht, to her home where they discussed the idea of selling used goods locally and donating the proceeds to MCC.

Friesen said the women’s groups contributed $125 to cover the first month rent of the shop, known back then as the Altona Community Self Help Centre. One month later, a thrift shop opened in Steinbach and later in the year, two shops opened in Winnipeg. These four shops contributed $6,300 to MCC in 1972.

The remarkable success of the four thrift shops inspired people from Mennonite churches in other Manitoba communities to open thrift shops. In 1974, thrift shops opened in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Bluffton, Ohio.

In the early years, most shops were started and administered by women, but it didn’t take too long before men became involved in the shops, said Friesen.  

Thrift shops not only generate funds for MCC, they are also an integral part of local communities, said Stoesz, 81, who still spends two hours almost every day to sort and price items.   

The many benefits include the availability of affordable goods, reusing and recycling, and meaningful opportunities for people to get to know each other and contribute to worthwhile causes.

“I have made a lot of friends here I didn’t know before,” said Stoesz. “It is very enriching to volunteer at a MCC thrift shop.  It is fulfilling because it is helping others—at home and overseas.”

People donating items to MCC thrift shops, buying items or volunteering may feel their contributions are inconsequential. But Friesen emphasized that the success of MCC shops demonstrate that collectively these efforts make a difference in local communities and around the world. 

“When we work together we can help others,” said Friesen. “Every little bit counts—it all adds up. We can’t all be overseas workers for MCC but we can all help MCC.”

Last year, the shops in Canada contributed $7.2 million to MCC.

Gladys Terichow is a writer for MCC Canada