I started off the day with a gorgeous view of Boston from my hotel room, and got a bit of a later start than I'd hoped.
I didn't realize until I was pulling away from the hotel just how close I'd been to Boyleston Street-- just around the corner. Just ahead of me at the stoplight was a fire house with signs paying tribute to the victims of last week's events.
I pulled onto the interstate heading south, and it didn't take long for me to realize I'd seriously underestimated how far it was to Rhode Island. Again, paying a toll every two feet (or at least it felt like it), but at least I was leaving the city and the traffic was light.
Yesterday, a woman at a toll booth on my way into Boston must have seen the terror on my face when I pulled up to pay-- clearly frazzled from the erratic drivers. She leaned into my car as I paid and said, "You know where you're going, honey?" Luckily the GPS hasn't steered me wrong yet, but the drivers along this portion of the trip are definitely stressing me out.
What I found was truly unexpected.
I walked in and met Aisha, the director. She tells me that sadly, they no longer have a thrift store here. That explains why the letters that spelled "thrift" had been peeled off the awning out front, though the word was still legible.
"Do you want to photograph a thrift store gone bad?" she asks.
Well now I do-- and now I'm interested in why.
Aisha tells me she was working in health care in 2004 when she decided to take a trip back to her native Sierra Leone after the end of the war there-- to check in on family and see that was happening. She saw the need huge need for funding to help the people there get back on their feet, so she started Khadarlis Thrift Store as a non-profit back in Providence as a way to assist those in need back in Sierra Leone.
The thrift shop opened in 2007.
But Aisha was getting requests for assistance more often than customers.
Most weeks the thrift store was only making about $60-- a week. By 2010 she realized this wasn't a thrift store, it needed to be a community center since there was clearly more of a need for it.
She'd already been organizing folks in the neighborhood to clear the streets of graffiti when one day she got a call from Home Depot. They wanted to assist her efforts and soon there were donations piling up from them in the former thrift store.
Then Bed Bath & Beyond called-- they wanted to assist her efforts in helping neighborhood folks in need of home goods. In came their donations as well. Then The Avenue began donating items, then Guess.
She leads me to the door to the basement, where she says she now stores all the donated goods that come in. When people come in to the center requesting a certain sized dress or a specific item they need, she climbs down the stairs and digs through the boxes and bags to find it for them.
I take a few steps down the stairs to see for myself and she tells me to be careful.
With good reason.
The basement is completely-- no joke, floor to ceiling-- full of stuff that's been donated. I get about halfway down the steps when the steps are suddenly overtaken by bags, boxes, bikes and chairs and I can't go any further without crawling across it all.
Back upstairs, Aisha tells me about all the ways the center is used now. As a place to type up resumes and cover letters, as a place to care for 10-30 kids after school (she makes meals at home with her own money to bring and give to kids each day) and she and her volunteers work with partner agencies in the area, including a women's shelter, a family center and the local Goodwill Youth Center, who works with Khadarlis on a youth job skills training program.
She even has a list on the walls and photos from the programs in Sierra Leone-- and now Guatemala as well-- that she sends food and other goods to when she can.
Oh, and she also runs a pen pal program with local students and kids in Sierra Leone.
It doesn't take long talking to Aisha to know she has a huge heart. She doesn't turn anyone-- or anything away. And even despite having been robbed recently (they took her computers), she's still upbeat about what she's doing here.
"God provides," she said. "I was raised to believe that and I do believe that. If you do the right thing, the rest will fall into place."
As for a return to her old line of work in health care, she just smiles. "The pleasure I get from this, nobody can buy."
So much for a "thrift store gone bad." I tell her I think this is a thrift store gone even better.
We hug and say our goodbyes.
Now I'm off to a store over on the East side of town called Hope Returns Thrift and Gifts.
Inside I meet Virginia, who is running the shop today and helping a customer find a cute outfit for her nine-month-old daughter. This shop specializes in second hand kids items-- toys and clothes-- and also sells some locally made goods.
The variety in the store is obvious and Virginia says she appreciates that. "I like that I don't open a box of something that's 30 of the same."
She says her customers like buying second hand for both financial and philosophical reasons-- opting to keep their consumption footprint low. "They know they're being kinder to the environment," she said. "And because it's been washed, there's fewer chemicals so environmentally, it's a lot friendlier.
Like Aisha, she also sees the store as a way to create a sense of community. Except instead of covering graffiti, Virginia's store is open to area mom's groups, who utilize the thrift store as a meeting space after hours.
As for why others should shop secondhand, Virginia knows it's not for everyone. "I understand it's a personal preference," she said. "You'd be surprised that the stuff hanging in your closet is hanging here."
I have to hand it to you, Rhody-- you had a few twists up your sleeve for me today, but they're both inspiring ladies and their stories show the power of secondhand.
So I leave you tonight in New Haven, Connecticut where I'll visit a Goodwill store tomorrow before making a bee-line to a friend's house where I can overnight in NYC.
So send all the good traffic/parking karma you can my way, I'm going to need it!
Miles driven since April 6: 3,640
Miles driven for the project so far total (roughly): 13,140