More than clothes: The forgotten first responders

By Tiana Severino-Fidow @maybetfidss

To the average shopper local charities seem like the perfect store to find affordable clothes and pick up some obscure objects to adorn the house with, but to those in need these places serve as treasured community hubs. 

Phil, who has been volunteering with Salvation Army as a charity worker for nine years, mentions that he and the rest of his staff are usually the first point of contact when customers are in difficult situations. 

“We’re what you call … ,” he stops and thinks about it. “Ah! ‘first responders’.” 

“Customers who need help with housing, bills – have any kind of issue. It’s a part of our job to refer them to our services,” as he points to the poster with the long list of contacts on the wall behind the counter.

Author and op-shopper Robyn Annear tells ABC National radio program Life Matters about the original purpose of charity stores: 

“Charity and thrift shops, and jumble sales before them, elevated the poor to consumers rather than supplicants.”

However, since the birth of op shops in the 1980s there appears to have been a shift.

The manager of a small and humble Anglicare charity store in my local area, who wishes to remain unnamed, shared some of her experiences and observations over the years as a paid worker for the store.

“I’ve learned a lot during my time here. We first started out as a retail store, you know, we were trained in how to greet customers. All the simple stuff. But lately over the years we’ve moved away from that idea and have started calling it ‘missional’ retail,” she said.  

A collision of colours and patterns on a thrift store rack. Picture: Angelsover/Pixabay/CC

“It’s a part of our job to lend an ear to those who need it. All we can do is listen, talk to them and offer services. Some [customers] who come in are just lonely and need somebody to talk to. That’s our mission.”

In 2018 Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) reported that volunteer numbers across Australia’s charity sector increased to 3.7 million, up 12% on the previous year’s figure of 3.3 million.

“Our staff don’t always have the right tools to deal with the stuff they’re told. Volunteers often walk away feeling heavy and burdened. As the manager I have to be trained and qualified in mental health first aid. Volunteers aren’t required [to do so].”

She pauses for a second.

“And the thing is customers choose who they want to talk to and it’s not always me. I hear about three heavy stories a day from different customers. Sometimes you don’t even need to be told; you can see it. And that’s just me alone.” 

Just as we ended the interview the manager had received a call inquiring about volunteering. After the call ends she explains:  “When JobKeeper ended many of our older volunteers had lost their job and ended up at Anglicare.”

When asking both interviewees from two different charities if they would like volunteers to be trained in mental health first aid they both met me with a smile and gave me a firm “yes”. 

So while social problems are not new, the demand for support seems to be unrelenting, and yet volunteers are not equipped to help the people that need their help the most. 

Featured image: The Uniting Op Shop in Mandurah. Photo: Greens MPs/Flickr/CC

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