One person donated a pair of fuzzy handcuffs. Another person gave a .30-caliber gun stored inside a pants pocket. Similarly, several sex toys have been donated.
The items, no matter how bizarre, wait to be sorted inside the donation box of Gainesville’s Outreach Center Thrift Store.
“There’s some strange things that come in,” said Grace Boyd, an employee at Outreach for more than two years. “You would be surprised what I pick up in our donation box.”
Surrounded by dull, gray shingles, Outreach’s bright blue door is a beacon. The store stands steadfast for many, a reliable place for affordable, second-hand clothing. Across the main building employees brave the box, sorting daily donations while discarding what cannot be sold.
“We’ve had shirts come in with Jesus playing basketball and Jesus riding a dinosaur,” Boyd said. “We can’t sell things like that.”
Outreach originally opened its business as a Christian organization. The store’s religious roots affect the type of donations it accepts and turns into saleable merchandise. Items with religious, illegal or obscene imagery will not make the shelves.
Besides clothing, Outreach also boasts an impressive selection of trinkets and knick-knacks.
“Right now there’s a hillbilly deodorizer,” said Leah Janigian, an employee who works the cash register. “It’s an air freshener that’s literally just a little log with matches stuck to it. [It’s] $4.99.”
Outreach is a Gainesville staple. The store proves to be a mecca for low-income families and broke college students alike.
“It’s a family business,” said Issac Vellekanp, one of Outreach’s owners. “We’ve owned it for 33 years.”
The store was founded by Vellekamp’s parents in his youth. The Vellekamps ran the thrift at its original, smaller location for several years prior to opening their bigger 2430 NW Sixth St. location.
Before Outreach became a landmark of the city, there were not many thrift stores in Alachua County. In the last three decades, that has changed.
“We were the second thrift store in all of Gainesville, the whole region,” said Vellekamp. “I’ve got customers who have been coming here to the outreach center for 33 years. Knew me when I was a little kid. They still come here to this day.”
Valerie Vellekamp, store founder and mother to Issac Vellekamp, corroborates their clientele’s loyalty.
“We have like three or four generations,” said Mrs. Vellekamp. “We have grandmas, moms and now their kids are coming in so it’s rewarding to see that.”
Karen Barco, a 65-year-old customer, has been frequenting Outreach for at least 16 years, she said.
“It’s the best spot around,” Barco said. “You can afford stuff here. It’s always so nice and clean.”
Barco originally learned of the store through a friend. .She hasn’t shopped at a mall since then, she said. The amount and variety of items that come through the store make it so customers can find almost anything, she said. Additionally, Outreach also provides the local community an affordable outlet for retail therapy.
“I get bored because I’m retired,” Barco said. “We just live down the street, we’re coming here maybe spending $10 or $15 at the most.”
Barco praised Outreach’s affordability. Other secondhand stores are too pricey when compared to Outreach, she said.
“Sometimes I come three times a week,” Barco said.
Susan Buikett, a 68-year-old Gainesville resident, is another longtime customer of the thrift. Buikett has been shopping at the store for over five years. Buikett attributed her continued patronage to the store’s prices and the nice staff.
Buikett has shopped at the store for so long that she knows where everything is, she said. Over the years, she has found many treasures at Outreach.
“I love leopards and I found these leopard pillowcases here,” she said. “They’re cool. They were like a dollar a piece,” Buikett added.
Buikett sees the store as a refuge. She frequents Outreach often to get away, calling it her “quiet time,” she said.
“I feel like I’m on a vacation. This is my vacation time,” Buikett said.
Outreach’s attentive staff curates a dedicated customer base that spans across generations. The variety of affordable merchandise ensures there’s something for everyone.
Morgan Goodsaid, a 21-year-old student at Florida State University, visits the store whenever she’s in town, she said. Goodsaid was raised in Gainesville and has shopped at Outreach since the store’s original location.
“It’s something that we’ve done for a long time,” Goodsaid said. “It’s also less wasteful than buying new clothes,” she added.
Outreach accepts donations daily to upkeep its stock variety. The system of daily donations creates a constant cycle of sorting for workers. It requires a lot of man power to maintain, Boyd said.
“It’s a lot more than what people think it is,” Boyd said.
In spite of the effort required to upkeep the store, the staff praised the management and work environment.
“Everybody is my family and we all work together,” Boyd said. “My boss is my best friend, literally!”
The admiration proved to be mutual. Vellekanp and the other owners held their staff in high regard. He spoke of his favorite part of the job. Without hesitation, he turned his attention toward the people.
“If our customers are our lifeblood, then the employees are the beating heart,” said Vellekanp. “Without the two working together, this body of this business would be dead. Both of them are super important and you can’t have one without the other.”
The thrift center opened with a mission in mind. Thirty years later, its mission is carried and fulfilled through a dedicated team who see the value in their work.
“Our goal is going to do what we’ve been doing,” Vellekanp said. “To provide good, used clothes at a good price to the people of Gainesville. That’s our mission, that’s what we want to do above anything else.”