by Lilly Eggert
The warehouse-like room is lined with rows of three-foot-tall bins, which are filled to the brim with piles of clothing. Customers dig through the heaps to find items that look suitable, throwing them in shopping carts as they go back into the pile to continue the search. Some customers have carts overflowing with clothing, others carry a few items under their arms.
Dig & Save is one of the seven St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores in Dane County. The unsold items from the other six stores end up at Dig & Save and land in the bins for customers to dig through and purchase at bargain prices. Customers load up their carts and take them to the large scale at the front of the store for weighing. Clothing is sold by the pound and is half price on Wednesdays.
Other items for sale include furniture, VHS tapes, small appliances, golf equipment and vinyl records.
One customer, Madison resident Yolanda Dabreo, takes her 5-year-old daughter shopping at Dig & Save once every month for new clothes. Dabreo likes this thrift store more than any other in the area because she feels she is getting more for her money.
“For my daughter it’s really easy. She can get dresses that are new, pants, jeans, name brands. It’s really fun for her,” Dabreo said.
Dabreo said her daughter is constantly outgrowing her clothes and that shopping at other stores, including Goodwill, is too expensive. Each year, Dig & Save holds a $1 coat sale on November 1st. At this year’s sale, Dabreo was able to buy winter coats for herself and her daughter for $2 total.
Dig & Save is the main store that Dane County residents turn to if they receive clothing or furniture vouchers through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Residents can apply for a voucher if they are in need of clothing, furniture or other necessities, like bedding. Member conferences, which are groups of SVDP Society members, then complete a home visit and assess the individual or family’s need and write a voucher for needed items.
There are 18 member conferences in Dane County who work to assess voucher need throughout the area. The most popular vouchers are for clothing and furniture, but SVDP also issues vouchers for housewares and bedding such as inflatable mattresses, linens and portable cribs.
Steve, an assistant manager at Dig & Save, said that his store sees about 70 furniture vouchers per month and about five clothing vouchers per day. At Dig & Save, the value maximum for a clothing voucher is 35 pounds of clothing for an adult and 25 pounds for a child.
Ernie Stetenfeld, the associate director of the Society of SVDP Madison said that the voucher program is unusual for similarly structured charities. The Madison organization distributes approximately $500,000 worth of clothes and furniture each year–items that come from the shelves of their stores, according to Stetenfeld.
“Unlike many charity thrift operations, we actually do direct charity from the stores. Our thrift operation directly supports our mission,” Stetenfeld said.
By providing access to clothing and furniture, among other services, SVDP fulfills their mission of “helping our neighbors in need.”
“We don’t run thrift stores just to run thrift stores. We run thrift stores to produce the revenue that we use to conduct our mission,” Stetenfeld said.
The first SVDP thrift store in Madison was established in 1941 on Williamson Street. Called “St. Vinny’s” for short, the store is known for its history and the “Rendu” clothing on the racks. The word “Rendu” is a term used locally that is meant to signify something that is fashion forward. This name is a tribute to a French Daughter of Charity, Sister Rosalie Rendu, who mentored one of the founders of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Frederic Ozanam.
Rendu grew up during the French Revolution and later devoted 50 years of her life to God and charity. Rendu died in February of 1856. Every day since her death, someone has placed flowers on Rendu’s grave, according to Stetenfeld.
“She was not fashion-forward, but she was the Parisian Mother Theresa of her time, so it’s named after her,” Stetenfeld said.
Stetenfeld said that in addition to the revenue gained from thrift stores, SVDP Madison relies heavily on volunteers and fundraising. Beyond the thrift stores and voucher programs, the organization has a food pantry, housing programs, lockers and a charitable pharmacy. While the workers in the thrift stores are paid employees, many of the people who work at the food pantry and in the housing programs are volunteers. In the course of one year, about 15,000 volunteers help at the food pantry, according to Stetenfeld.
The Society St. Vincent de Paul in Madison was established in 1925 and is celebrating 90 years of serving Dane County in 2015.