Thrift store honors Donna Halstead, aims to keep church going

Marlene Strang in the Donna Halstead Memorial Thrift Store at the First United Methodist Church of Highland. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Three times a week, the First United Methodist Church of Highland opens the doors to its back room to sell used clothing, board games, old books, plates and knickknacks. The price was right, $1 and up for most items, and in the face of the recession people have snapped up the items. “We started in this little space and we’ve overgrown it,” Rev. Arlene Dawber said, as she worked her way through the stuffed room. “There’s such a need for this.” Church volunteer Marlene Strang agreed, saying that people in the Town of Lloyd have bought used goods at a surprising level. “We have people who’d buy bags of clothing,” she said. Christmas was also a boon for the store, both in terms of donations and sales. People came looking for decorations or cheap toys for the kids in their lives. Donors often brought in some really special items. “This Christmas, people sent us toys that were never even opened for people to buy for like $2,” the pastor said. The thrift store itself is named after a former parishioner, Donna Halstead, who came up with the idea to sell used goods at the church as a fundraiser. Halstead, who died on March 11, 2011 after a fight with cancer, was well-known in town — both as the co-owner of Vadala’s Pharmacy and a past president of the Highland Board of Education. After becoming a parishioner at the Methodist Church in Highland in 2009, Halstead became involved as a volunteer, trying to find a way to raise money for a church struggling with an older, shrinking congregation.

“She just had such creative ideas,” the pastor said. “She was right and this is an important thing.”

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Right now, church attendance is down to an average of about 46 — not nearly enough to support heating the place or a potential big-ticket upgrade to the heating system.

“It’s hard to get people,” Rev. Dawber said about attendance. Younger Christians might come for Christmas or Easter, but they often don’t attend services throughout the year. Lack of interest has sparked the “Why the Church?” campaign, which has become a part of the Sunday sermons as well.

With the thrift store, the church is trying to make money to stay open, but they also don’t shy away from helping people in need by passing on those thrift goods for free. That’s one of the biggest helps that Rev. Dawber sees coming from the church during this era of recession and international financial woe. Believers who aren’t showing up on Sundays miss out on some of the charity they might receive if they are struggling.

“For me, it’s always been the community that supports you,” she said of the church.

Aside from attendance, that landmark church in Highland still needs a bit of help. Each day that they heat the main sanctuary with its ancient and inefficient heating system, it means they use about 27 gallons of heating oil. In an era when heating oil can be $3.80 to $4 a gallon, that can equate to almost $23,000 a month. During the winter, to cut down on the heating bill for the big old church, Rev. Dawber leads services in the choir practice room.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t have worship,” the pastor explained, standing in the choir room. The makeshift worship space has a spare piano, all the song books needed, and two columns of chairs and seats about 50 or 60. “It just makes more sense to try to heat this space.”

At least on store days, items from the Donna Halstead Memorial Thrift Store have crept into the wintertime worship area for lack of room. This has the pastor and church volunteers thinking about a very big step in the near-term future.

“We’re going to try to put the thrift shop into the parsonage,” explained church volunteer Strang. A parsonage, for the uninitiated, is a small house off to the side of the church. Typically, the pastor lives there, but in Highland the house has been rented to a caretaker who keeps up the property.

With two floors in the parsonage, that would add square footage comparable to the larger Main Street shops in New Paltz or Highland. According to Rev. Dawber, they hope to move the thrift shop into the parsonage as early as February or possibly March.

Part of the problem for the Donna Halstead Thrift Store has been the items they can carry due to their limited size. People have come in looking for coffee tables, dressers, chairs or other furniture only to find out that the church’s bazaar doesn’t often hold them. Strang and the other church volunteers noted that sometimes furniture is available, and it’s held in a storeroom on the church lot, but not having room in the shop makes availability unpredictable.

Moving the thrift store is a risk for the church, because it would mean trading one source of revenue — rent — to another — sales. Either way, it is a risk the church volunteers and pastor are willing to take based on the response to the thrift shop.

“We have to believe in each other and believe we can get this done,” Strang said.

People interested in hunting for bargains at the church’s thrift store should know that the store is only open Tuesdays 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., Thursdays 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Those looking to donate to the Donna Halstead Thrift Store, or simply to learn more about it, can call 691-7300 or stop by at 57 Vineyard Ave., in downtown Highland. For more information about the church itself, call 691-2284 or visit www.highland-umc.com. ++