Help for the helpers at Interfaith
By SUSAN SMILEY-HEIGHT
Sometimes, God’s faithful who are used to offering a hand up to others need a little help of their own. Or even a loan.
The local nonprofit Interfaith Emergency Services, Inc. has annually extended help to thousands of individuals and families since the agency was created by a group of pastors in 1983. The motto of the organization is "God’s hand extended to those in need."
Among the wide-ranging programs of the agency is its thrift store at 718 N. Pine Ave., Ocala. Proceeds from the store go to fund the Emergency Prescription Program, through which those who are needy or do not have insurance can get prescriptions for illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and heart problems. Interfaith spends between $40,000 and $60,000 annually meeting this need. In addition, roughly $10,000 to $15,000 of the donated inventory from the store goes to help families in need each year.
Early in the morning on Sept. 25, 2015, a driver being chased by police crashed a car into the thrift store’s storage building, which caused a fire that destroyed more than $100,000 worth of inventory and demolished the pole barn-type structure under which the goods were stored.
While operations continued more or less as usual inside the store, the behind-the-scenes work presented a number of challenges. The donation acceptance area, for example, quickly became a "tent city."
"Our storage has basically been in tents and a trailer donated by Diel-Jerue Trucking," said Interfaith CEO Karla Grimsley of the past 19 months.
Last fall, a new metal warehouse began to take form on the property. The unit, which is nearly complete, abuts the store.
Grimsley said funding issues caused delays in being able to begin rebuilding the storage area.
"The total cost of the renovation is approximately $213,000, mainly due to issues with the ground surface and foundation that had to be addressed," she said.
"When the fire happened, the community generously donated $42,000 and insurance provided another $21,000, so we went into the project with $63,000. The rest has been borrowed and will have to be repaid from proceeds from the store," she said.
Grimsley said Boutwell Contracting is building the warehouse and "they have been very patient working with us and our limited resources."
The enclosed metal building will provide 3,250 square feet of indoor storage space, including a room in which to display appliances with electrical hook-ups.
Jason Boutwell, co-owner with his brother Garrett of Boutwell Contracting, a commercial and custom home build and remodel business, said the project was put out for bid and that they and their sub-contractors all donated some services in order to get the project.
"We know how important it is to the community to do what they do," Jason Boutwell said. "Now, they will be able to expand and grow."
He said that in terms of working with the nonprofit agency, it was "like any construction process, you make changes, you adapt, you have a budget to get to."
Boutwell said he has enjoyed working with Grimsley and others on the project, which he expects to wrap up in May.
"Great customers make for a great job," he said.
Grimsley said what happened nearly two years ago was devastating, but in the end will be a good thing.
"Formerly, we had several pole barns, which were never really the best option for storing our donations, but for years was our only option. The fire forced our hand to make some much needed (and desired) improvements. The improved storage capacity will be much better for handling donations and overall operation. The additional space will also allow us to enhance our eBay store, which currently brings an additional $1,000 a month, on average, but has much more potential."
"The purpose of the store is to fund our prescription medication program," she added. "This program has assisted uninsured Marion County residents of low income for many years by paying for a one-month supply of medications. This ministry is critical to many who can’t afford medications for chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
"For ongoing needs, we connect clients to patient assistance programs offered through the pharmaceutical companies. We hope the improvements will boost sales so we can continue to support the medication program at the same level as in years past."
The thrift store is just south of the intersection of U.S. 441 and U.S. 27. The store is among the "gateway" properties first seen when travelers come into the city from the north. To make it more appealing to the eye, Grimsley said she has talked with city officials about improving the look of the property and is currently seeking bids for some work on the facade of the building.
Melanie Gaboardi, director of revitalization strategies for the City of Ocala, said the strategies team has administered several grant programs and provides various types of residential and commercial assistance.
"We have had ongoing discussions about ways the city can assist with improvements," Gaboardi said of the thrift store property.
Interfaith Emergency Services, headquartered at 435 NW Second St., Ocala, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The thrift store is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
"We want to say how much we appreciate our supporters for being patient with us when donation reception has been very challenging," Grimsley said of the challenges with the thrift store.
"Once the store is finished you won’t recognize it," she added. "It’s going to have a whole new look and we hope that people will stop by and check us out. And, of course, we always need those gently used donations that still hold some value.
"When people tell me they want to donate a sofa but don’t want us to sell it, my response is, ‘but if we sell it we can buy someone’s heart medication and maybe save their life.’ We literally turn donations into medication through this thrift store. It’s not a hard sell, especially when I add that we will send a truck to pick up large donations."