by Edwina Hoyle
photography by Jacie Elizabeth Millen
Open the door of the Church Mouse Thrift Shop and the first thing you notice isn’t the wonderful display of sparkling crystal, or the art on the wall, or even the stunning dining table and chairs so reasonably priced. It’s the happy chatter, smiling faces, laughter and welcoming words. It’s a warm and friendly place that buzzes with activity and cheerful banter between staff, volunteers and customers. The customers are thrilled with the bargains, and the volunteers and staff are eager to make suggestions, offer assistance and answer questions. The atmosphere is almost like a family reunion, a party where everyone seems to know everyone else.
Debbie Wood, the general manager, said their customers are locals, regulars and tourists who come back year after year. “We have a great group of volunteers who are wonderful friends who work together.” Debbie actually started at the Church Mouse as a volunteer in 2011. “I worked one day a week for 21/2 hours, and in 2014 I became the manager. We have six paid staff and over 100 volunteers,” she said.
“I’ve bonded with our volunteers and formed friendships. People new to the community come in to make friends and find socialization, and people who shop here and support our mission want to belong, so they become volunteers,” Debbie said.
The Church Mouse is much more than a thrift shop. Through the sale of donated clothing and goods, their purpose is to raise money to provide grants to non-profit organizations, as well as to help people in need. In 2020, $380,984 was raised and distributed. Local involvement is of utmost importance to assist with the homeless, prison inmates, disaster victims and local non-profit organizations. The Church Mouse not only offers grants to organizations, they also provide “pass-through goods” to organizations like Agape, Old Savannah City Mission, Allendale Prison Ministry and many more.
“Every day is a new day at the Church Mouse,” Debbie said. “We want it to be a happy place with a culture of kindness. We make sure we follow our mission, and God takes care of the rest. I like to say it’s a ‘God thing.’ We raise money to give it away. That’s what we’re here for. We are a business, and without our volunteers we couldn’t do it.”
“Our volunteers generally stick around, unless they have health issues or move away. Since 2014 I can count on one hand those who have left. We also have a very supportive volunteer board.”
Friendships certainly grow from belonging to something bigger than oneself at The Church Mouse. Debbie said they have husbands and wives who volunteer together, even a few 90-year-olds, and an amazing variety of backgrounds from every walk of life: executives; nurses; teachers; and even a college president.
Carol Gyllenhoff said she is the third-longest serving volunteer at the Church Mouse with tenure of 17 years. “The first day I came in they had cake! It was their first anniversary. It’s a warm, cooperative atmosphere. It’s addictive and you get committed, and it’s gratifying to see how many entities we can help. For me, it’s important to recycle. We try not to waste. What we can’t sell, we pass along and recycle to others,” said Carol. She works on the second floor sorting clothes with a few other volunteers. “This is our little niche,” she said. “We are the ‘flowers’ in the attic.”
One of Carol’s new “flowers” is Nancy Sturgis, or as she is affectionately called: “Wexford Nancy,” the label expert. Her friends on the sorting team are glad to have her on board because she has an uncanny ability to recognize the labels of high-value clothing. Nancy became a volunteer only five months ago after moving to Hilton Head from Connecticut.
“I was filling a void. I came in here and shopped and just loved these ladies. I now enjoy working with these ladies, sharing stories and doing work for the greater good. I feel more complete. There has to be more than golf and tennis; I need a purpose-driven life,” Nancy said.
A new friendship quickly blossomed with the third “flower,” Margit Vaughn who hails from Frankfurt, Germany. She worked in retail, and when she retired, she was invited to join The Church Mouse team by a neighbor. “I fell in love with it and wanted to stay busy in retail. I’m friends with all of them. I love the crew, and they treat us to special events and great parties. It’s great for me to meet all the other volunteers who work on different days.” Nancy and Margit found that they not only enjoy working together, but they also have shared interests: “I took this young whipper-snapper to the Humane Society, and now we volunteer there together, as well,” Margit said.
Gwen Martin has volunteered in the jewelry department at the Church Mouse for five years. She beautifully summed up the value of her service and the importance of friendship: “What do the friendships I’ve found at the Church Mouse mean to me? One word…Everything! It’s a second family of wonderful, caring, hard-working people, who for many of us, have no immediate family in the area. We are so lucky to have found such camaraderie and have been able to form genuine friendships. We celebrate good times and lend comfort to each other in bad times. But we also feel fulfilled in volunteering and making a difference in our community by supporting the Church Mouse with our time.”
The Church Mouse Boutique Thrift Shop is a ministry of St. Luke’s Church. Its purpose is to provide funding for St. Luke’s local and global missions, as well as to support a multitude of Beaufort County nonprofit organizations. Located at 78 Arrow Road on Hilton Head Island, the store is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.