Usually, stores exist to make money. Bonnie Johnson, however, just wants to help people.
Johnson runs the nonprofit Helping Hands & Caring Hearts Thrift Store. The original location is in Benton and encompasses an entire strip mall, but Johnson and her sister, Janet Wilson, just opened a second location in Jacksonville.
“I’m a fixer,” Johnson said.
The Benton location of Helping Hands & Caring Hearts is at 803 W. South St. Johnson said she has been able to help and pray with countless people over the years.
“She can’t even go to Walmart to shop until late at night, or she’ll never get done with everyone wanting to talk to her,” Wilson said. “They all ask, ‘Ms. Bonnie, will you pray for me?’”
Johnson’s journey into “thrift-store ministry” started with another organization. She was volunteering at its store when she saw many people coming in with significant needs. She asked the owner if they could price everything at $1 and was told no.
After a few months, the owner had to take time off for medical reasons and put Johnson in charge of the store. When the owner came back, Johnson had increased sales from $150 to $600 per day.
“She asked what I had done, and I told her I started selling everything for $1,” Johnson said. “I was fired. Well, you can’t be fired from a volunteer job, but I was told I wasn’t needed anymore.”
The idea of helping people through a thrift store stayed with Johnson, though. She said she believed that God was telling her to open her own shop.
“I can hear God’s guidance,” she said. “He said, ‘If you did this, then I will open the floodgates.’”
For 13 years, Johnson has run the store with the sole purpose of helping people.
She prays with a lot of her patrons and has been known to give things to those in need. Johnson said she allows God to help her discern these actions, though, so that she helps those who need it without allowing people to take advantage of her generosity.
“I don’t believe God put us here to enable people,” she said. “He put us here to love people.”
Johnson has many connections to the court system. She has worked in jails and, at one time, considered becoming an attorney. Her son, James Gross, has spent time in prison. Because of her intimate knowledge of “the system,” she has seen the needs of people who come out of prison and wants to help them. That’s why she employs people who are in drug court, on parole or have been in prison.
“I feel like I fight for the rights of the people,” she said. “We fight for what’s right.”
Johnson said she knew she was supposed to open a second store. She was looking at Hot Springs but said she didn’t feel that was the right location.
“I didn’t have any peace about it,” she said.
That’s when her son, Gross, suggested Jacksonville.
“He told me, ‘It’s needed there,’” Johnson recalled.
Johnson wasn’t unfamiliar with Jacksonville. In fact, she grew up in the area. She resisted the idea of going back to the northern-Pulaski County city, likening herself to Jonah of the Bible, who ran from the city that God told him to minister to.
“I didn’t want to go back to Jacksonville,” she said.
Still, her son was right. She knew there was a need for something like Helping Hands & Caring Hearts in the city.
Johnson and Wilson heard of a building that could work for the store. They visited the building and prayed that — if it was to be — the owner would give them a rental agreement without asking for a deposit or the first month’s rent.
As it turns out, the building they were looking at is across the street from the location where they ended up. Johnson and Wilson said their prayers were answered and their plans were confirmed when the owner said he would grant them a lease without a deposit or the first month’s rent.
“Within one hour, we were in Jacksonville,” Wilson said.
The Jacksonville location is at 515 S. James St. Right now, Wilson and Johnson are looking for volunteers, specifically one who would commit to helping them grill hot dogs for the community every Saturday.
For more information on the Jacksonville store, how to donate or how to volunteer, call Helping Hands & Caring Hearts at (501) 241-9333.