The founders of the very first MCC Thrift Shop in North America have been recognized by the Nellie McClung Foundation. The organization has named Selma Loewen, Sara Stoesz, Linie Friesen, Susan Giesbrecht and the dozens of women who helped found the first MCC Thrift shop in Altona as recipients of the 150 Manitoba Women Trailblazer Awards.
According to the foundation, the Trailblazer Award salutes the contributions that women have made to social justice, arts, sports, politics, community activities and promoting democracy while continuing to develop the great province of Manitoba.
Selma, Sara, Linie and Susan spearheaded the idea of selling second-hand clothing and giving the money they generated to MCC.
Susan Giesbrecht says what started out as a quick way to make some cash for MCC's global relief programs ended up spreading to other communities across North America.
"We thought we'd try it and in six months everybody will have cleaned out their closets and then we could close it up and go our own ways again. But, as you can see, that hasn't happened."
In fact, from those humble beginnings grew a network of close to 100 thrift shops in both Canada and the U.S. Those shops generated close to $20 million dollars of revenue in 2019.
Susan Giesbrecht was asked if she and the other ladies felt like they were blazing a new trail toward something new and exciting when they opened that first thrift store back in March 1972.
"No, we really didn't. All we wanted to do was find a way to get rid of these clothes and turn that into money so that MCC could buy clothes in the countries where they were needed. We had no idea that we were starting anything or that it would last this long or that people had that much stuff leftover in their homes. We thought in six months everybody would have brought us their stuff and that would be it. We never thought that we were trailblazing for all these stores and that they would be as successful as they are."
That first store in Altona made about $1,000 in its first year of operation. As important as that was for MCC's programs, Giesbrecht notes the shop also had some other benefits too.
"We were hoping it would get all the churches involved, not just one church, and it has done that. We four ladies were from the Altona Mennonite Church, the Bergthaler and EMMC. Right there we had three churches involved and now I'm not sure how many more churches are involved."
The 92-year-old Giesbrecht says the thrift shop also evolved into a place where women could come together and fellowship and talk. She points out that, back in the 1970s, neither she nor her three partners were working outside the home so they were able to help out at the thrift shop when it was open.
"At that time I was in my 40s so we had time to listen to anybody who came into the store. If you came in with a problem and you needed somebody to talk to we usually took time to talk whenever we could. Somehow, women need that. We like to talk to each other."
Giesbrecht says the Nelie McClung award came as a surprise when she heard it. She admits, while the four of them have received a lot of recognition for their efforts in starting the thrift shop concept, she feels so many more people need to be recognized too.
"I think we need to give more attention to those who have kept it going. All of the volunteers that we've had through the years have been so tremendous. They are the ones that kept it going."
Written by Dean Penner