The Thrifty Spot, a project spearheaded by Mathews High School special education teacher Cathy Walker, has received the Excellence in Virginia Government Award for Community Enhancement from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Walker and Mathews County Special Education Director Louise LeBron accepted the award during a ceremony in Richmond on Dec. 5.
The Thrifty Spot is a thrift store in Mathews that began on a $5,000 budget, funded with money from federal stimulus efforts after the economic downturn. LeBron said the program, which Walker decided to pursue after hearing about a similar program during a school conference, met the criteria for a transition-to-work program for special education students.
Walker said that when she asked school superintendent Dr. David Holleran for money for the project over three years ago, he told her that she would have to prove that the shop could be self-sufficient. She never had a doubt that it could. A thrift shop shopper herself, she said that an economic downturn was the best time to start such a business.
Not only that, but she knew that establishing and running a retail business would have a positive impact on her students. It would help develop vocational and communication skills, shore up the daily living and social skills being taught at school, and provide functional academic skills in a real-world setting. She said she and her teacher assistants and students began by collecting things in the classroom, “wondering if we’d ever get enough to fill a store.”
But she didn’t need to worry. When word got out about the project, donations came flooding in. A local business donated fixtures, a store in Mechanicsville went out of business and gave the shop clothing rounders and shelving, and a storage facility in Williamsburg donated glass cabinets. On top of that, donated goods began flowing in from the community.
The Thrifty Spot had its grand opening on Dec. 8, 2010 in its first location, a small building on Cricket Hill Road. It made $800 that day—more than enough to pay the first month’s rent. Since opening, it has received a donation every single day, said Walker, from housewares and Christmas goods to furniture and clothes.
“It’s like having a potluck dinner,” said Walker with a laugh. “You might end up with all desserts, but it turns out okay.”
The store, which soon outgrew its first location and moved to new quarters in a two-story storehouse at Hudgins, now makes enough money to pay for itself. Not only that, but it also pays an hourly wage for students who work there, purchases items such as laptops that are needed in the classroom, provides grants to fund special projects and needs that other teachers have, such as field trips, and provides scholarships for graduating seniors. It even paid to install handicapped sidewalks at the high school football field and to have an intercom system put in all three schools to enable special ed teachers to conduct meetings with parents unable to get to meetings at the school.