Article written and photos by Urban Alliance staff.
The Youth Challenge Thrift Store, which opened its doors just a few weeks ago, is filled to the brim with donated hats, shoes, clothing, household goods and books. Rows and rows of everything from suits and dresses to plates, cups and even jewelry line the walls of the shop, awaiting their own “second chances,” so to speak.
On the surface, it may seem like any other resale store, but quickly after setting foot in the breezy one-room shop, which has been set up in a repurposed space of its own (a former bookstore) in the back of Temple Zion Church on Park Street in Hartford, it becomes clear that the heartbeat of this thrift store is truly unique.
Monique Londoño, store manager, giggled with joy as she tidied up Youth Challenge of Connecticut’s newly organized store. Her smile filled the room as she and Reverend Eulogio “Pocho” Velez and his wife, Maria Rivera-Velez, described their hopes for the store, and how blessed they feel to be a part of it.
While the store is bursting with gently used (and even some new) clothes and accessories for men, women and children, Velez explains that his vision is much bigger than to simply help provide clothing to those in need.
“People come here with different needs; family problems, addictions. What someone needs most is sometimes not a physical need, but someone to listen. When we have someone listen, we feel loved. By listening to the people who come into the store, they feel that Jesus loves them.”
Londoño, who recently became unemployed, learned about the opportunity to volunteer at the thrift store through Glory Chapel International Cathedral, a church that works closely with Youth Challenge (both of which are a part of the Urban Alliance network). In speaking with her, it quickly became evident that she has embraced her new role and has contagious optimism for the thrift store’s potential to positively-impact the community.
Unlike other second-hand shops, the Youth Challenge Thrift Store provides many ways for people to obtain what they need. Customers can bring old clothes to trade for new ones, which may happen if children grow out of their clothes often. If someone simply does not have the means to pay, they can contribute what they are able, or may accept clothing as a donation. Volunteers at the store also help to connect customers with food pantries and community groups.
“No one will be left empty handed,” explained Londoño.
Beyond providing clothing or household goods, the store radiates love. And, with every transaction comes the opportunity for prayer and a positive impact on the lives of neighbors.
“A woman, who was struggling with alcoholism, came in the store that was looking for help for her nephew. She walked in and looked around, and decided to purchase a little Tupperware item for 50 cents. She walked away but then returned, having seen the little bucket we have out for prayer requests. She came back in and said, ‘I have a prayer request. Can I write it down?’ and at that point she said, ‘I knew I came in here for something!'”
Londoño added, “We want people to come visit, pray with us and fellowship with us! We’re no strangers, and we love people!”
In addition to the thrift store being open almost daily, they give out sandwiches once a month in the thrift store’s parking lot on Amity Street, alongside Youth Challenge’s Love Kitchen, based in Hartford’s Upper Albany neighborhood, which Rev. “Pocho” and Maria Velez helped start in 2011. The purpose of Love Kitchen, which is sponsored in part by FoodShare and Stop & Shop, is to alleviate the hungry with food and serve them with all the love that Jesus Christ asked us to have for one another. By pairing the Love Kitchen and the Thrift Store together, the positive outcome is twofold.
“I would love to see the community coming together more,” explained Londoño, “That is why we are here!”
Velez’s eyes widened as he shared the long-term vision to expand to multiple stores throughout Hartford and beyond. His dream is to someday also open a coffee shop and have a place where people can interact socially to bring the community together.
Proceeds from the store will support Youth Challenge of Connecticut, a non-profit organization based in Hartford that operates residential programs and conducts outreach to help people with alcohol and other drug problems find drug-free, productive, and meaningful lives. More importantly, Velez hopes that the store profits community rather than dollars. He explained that their focus is on meeting needs in the community, not to make a profit.
“There’s no limit to God. We volunteer to do this because we are working for the Lord. Our reward comes from the Lord!” he said.
The Youth Challenge Thrift Store will be holding an open house on Saturday, June 8 from 9:00 am-4:30 pm. The store is located at 1886 Park Street, Hartford, CT, behind the Temple Zion Church. Parking is available on Amity Street. The store is open Monday – Saturday, 9:00am – 6:00pm. For more information, to volunteer or to donate, visit www.youthchallenge.org, www.lovekitchenct.weebly.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.