By Samantha Swann
From the outside, the United Way of the Piedmont’s Gifts in Kind Center looks like an ordinary warehouse. But the vehicles that roll in through the loading dock aren’t taking their inventory to stores — they’re taking the items to Upstate residents in need.
The United Way of the Piedmont celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Gifts in Kind Center Tuesday.
“Ten years ago, we got a call from the United Way in Bentonville, Arkansas and they said, ‘Walmart is setting up a reverse logistics center in Spartanburg. They are looking for a partner for a Gifts in Kind program, are you interested?’ And we said yes,” Paige Stephenson, president and CEO of United Way of the Piedmont, said of the start of the center.
Initial meetings took place during April and May of that year, the first warehouse was purchased, and the Gifts in Kind Center opened that August.
“It just kind of exploded from there,” Stephenson said. “We went from not having a warehouse and not having anyone who knew anything about running a warehouse to having all of that in place and already begun to recruit a small army of volunteers to help us run it.”
Stephenson said the Gifts in Kind Center has undergone some changes in the past 10 years, the largest being moving into a new warehouse. The roof of the original warehouse at 330 UCCI Way collapsed in December after a winter storm, leading them to relocate to their current facility on Barnwell Road.
They’ve also increased the amount of goods being sent out into the community.
“That first year, it was around $12 million, and this past year, we topped $28 million, so in 10 years we’ve more than double the amount of product going out our doors,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson noted that getting involved with the Gifts in Kind Center is a little different than helping other organizations — Gifts in Kind volunteers have to be trained, so one-day volunteer projects aren’t really an option, and since the center is stocked with returns and unsaleable items from Walmart, donations aren’t needed.
“Another way to get involved with this in an indirect manner is actually working with those organizations that are members and being a shopper for them,” Stephenson said. There is training involved for shoppers as well, she said.
The approximately 150 organizations that have purchased memberships can come shop the warehouse once a week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings between 9-11. Shopping trips are timed — 30 minutes per session — so the shoppers have to be quick to sort through the many items in the “store” section and get what they need.
Volunteers, like June Poslik of Inman, restock the shelves in between groups of shoppers. Poslik, who was organizing the medicine shelves of the shop, has volunteered at the Gifts in Kind Center with her husband for 10 years and is affectionately called Miss June by the shoppers she sees each week.
“Whenever they were opening it up, they said they needed volunteers to help put the stuff up and direct the customers around and that’s how I joined it. Ten years ago that was, and I’ve been coming every Wednesday since,” Poslik said. “I enjoy the people who come in. We have a lot of different organizations that come in and churches, and it’s nice.”
Stephenson said the holidays were business as usual for the Gifts in Kind Center, but for many of the organizations who shop at the Gifts in Kind Center, the weeks leading up to the holidays are a time to search for items beyond their usual needs.
For example, Jonesha Cauthen, shopping for Meeting Street Academy Wednesday, and Sandy Nunnery, shopping for Spartanburg School District 1, were looking for toys and other small gifts, in addition to their usual school supplies, to help make sure all students have something for the holidays.
“We’re opening a parent closet so we can have access to different items that they need like household stuff or just so they can have gifts to give to their kids if they don’t have it,” Cauthen said. “We’re looking for any kind of toiletry items, household items, cleaning items, kids’ toys — anything that we can maybe give back to help cut the costs on anything our parents would have to provide.”
Willie Keels, shopping for Piedmont Community Actions, said the Gifts in Kind Center makes it possible for them to more easily provide necessities, like toiletries, diapers and medicines.
“It’s like the backbone. It helps out with helping other parents in the community, it helps with the cost,” Keels said. “A lot of (these items) would be coming strictly out of the budget, and it’s a lot of money out of the budget. We can basically come here and get it for nothing and give it to the people who need it.”