School’s relocated thrift store exceeding expectations

Carol Rolf Originally Published December 30, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated December 28, 2012 at 10:15 a.m.
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Carol Rolf

The Van Buren County Special School has relocated its thrift store to U.S. 65 in Choctaw. Darwin Arnold, left, manager of the Thrift, Gifts and More store, and Neil Wilkins, director of the Van Buren County Special School, are shown here in the store, which sells new and used clothing, household items, books and furniture. The school’s adult clients work at the store.

— The Van Buren County Special School relocated its thrift store from downtown Clinton to a new site on U.S. 65 in Choctaw on June 1, and the store is already bulging at the seams.

“We’re already talking about getting this building paid down some and expanding,” said Neil Wilkins Jr., director of the school, a nonprofit organization that

provides developmental day treatment programs for children and adults with disabilities or delays. “We can’t keep any furniture. It’s often sold before we can even get it in the store.”

The Thrift, Gifts and More store is the adult workshop for the school. Wilkins said the store receives donated goods — used and new clothing, household items, books and furniture — from the public, and the school’s adult clients process the items for sale. The clients are paid a special minimum wage — less than the federal minimum wage — for their work. He said up to 19 clients are now working various shifts at the store, with no more than six working at a time. Some work part time, and others work full time.

The store is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays. The 5,000-square-foot building includes 2,000 square feet for the thrift store and 3,000 square feet for storage.

Darwin Arnold, manager of the thrift store, said the clients do a variety of jobs at the store, including washing, hanging, sorting and folding clothes, dispersing the products into the store and sacking the items for customers.

“The clothing that is not usable is recycled,” Wilkins said. “Our local recycling center works closely with us and takes anything that we cannot use.”

Arnold said the store has a “good customer base.”

“We’ve already done twice what we had expected,” Arnold said. “People have been very generous.”

Recently, Eleanor Hilsenrath, president of the Van Buren County Master Gardeners, presented a check for $1,000 to the thrift store to help with the cost of building a rock garden. Wilkins said the school’s clients will receive payment for their work in developing and maintaining the garden as part of their personal-growth plan. He said the group chose this project because it is visible to the public and will provide a learning experience for the school’s clients.

In addition to Arnold, the Thrift, Gifts and More store has two full-time employees — Margie St. Claire and Loreva Reece — and one part-time employee, Linda Tyler.

Wilkins said the clients also learn other skills at the school through classes in personal growth, social skills, household management, light cooking and physical fitness. In their leisure time, they do art, crafts, games, music and outdoor activities when the weather permits. They also participate in Special Olympics and have days out in the community. He said some of the clients live at home with their parents, while others live in assisted-living

facilities or independently.

Wilkins said the Van Buren Special School was started in 1970 in Shirley. The school moved to its current location on Arkansas 95 in Choctaw in 1974. That site includes the old Choctaw school building, which was remodeled; several other buildings have been added since that time.

The Van Buren Special School has a staff of 46 and serves the needs of 27

developmentally challenged adults older than 18. The second component of the school is the Lakeside Learning Center, which serves approximately 58 to 60 children, infants to 5-year-olds.

Wilkins said the learning center offers developmental one-on-one therapy services from licensed early-childhood special-education teachers in an early intervention and preschool classroom setting, as well as full-service occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy by licensed therapists.

“We also provide transportation in the morning and afternoon and run 10 different routes throughout the county,” he said, adding that the school also provides transportation for the adult clients.

Wilkins said the Van Buren Special School is funded “primarily through Medicaid.”

“And the Van Buren County Quorum Court consistently gives us enough money that we don’t have to seek matching money elsewhere,” he said.

Wilkins said he hopes the Thrift, Gifts and More store will be self-sufficient.

“So far, we have been able to pay our clients, our utility bills and make our note payment,” he said with a smile. “We are really pleased with it. It’s doing great.”

For more information on the Thrift, Gifts and More store, call (501) 745-3278.

For more information on the Van Buren Special School and the Lakeside Learning Center, call (501) 745-4580.

“We take new clients and students all the time,” Wilkins said.