Laura Mae’s serves as an extension of Helping Hands Ministry
Story by Catherine Hosman
Photos by Julie Nabours
Trends may come and go, but one trend that doesn’t go out of style is dressing well, and doing it frugally. But it’s hard to find that special outfit for work, play or social events that doesn’t drain the pocket book. One nice outfit, especially if it’s a designer label, can take a big chunk out of a woman’s clothing budget. And if she is starting over again after a long period of under- or unemployment, the choices are even slimmer.
One place that helps women find that perfect outfit is Laura Mae’s Resale Shop, an extension of Helping Hands Ministry in Belton, where women can shop resale for a purpose.
Walking into Laura Mae’s (named for its first volunteer, Laura Mae Peters) is more like walking into a fashionable boutique. Clothing is hung neatly by size and season — they were getting ready to stock their fall fashions — shoes and accessories looking brand new are creatively displayed throughout the shop. They also have a selection of home décor items.
Searching for the right outfit becomes a treasure hunt as shoppers uncover designer labels such as Michael Kors, Chicos, Coldwater Creek, Alfred Dunner, Karen Scott and more.
“Some women come in who say they wouldn’t be able to wear such new clothes if it wasn’t for Laura Mae’s, whether it’s for a job or a job interview,” said Sarah Achee, office administrator for Helping Hands Ministry. “All proceeds go back to Helping Hands.”
Before coming to Helping Hands, Achee worked in accounts payable at CPA firms. But something was missing. “I wanted to do accounts, but I also wanted to be helping people in the meantime,” she said. When her current position was vacated by a friend who left to raise her new baby, Achee was encouraged to apply.
“I love working with the volunteers. They are all so different. We have a really good time. It’s fun, like family.”
Four full-time employees and volunteers keep the shop running smoothly.
Six volunteers rotate schedules to work at the store. “We keep the shop organized and clean,” said Faye Butler, who had been volunteering four years.
“We go to the back and collect items that people bring in,” said Barbara Duckens, a two-year volunteer. “We check to make sure there are no spots. If handbags come in, we clean up the handbags, we stay busy.”
Achee said it’s the volunteers who go through donated items to find clothes that customers will like. Once selections have been made, the staff then brings the clothes to the holding area in the store to steam clean and de-wrinkle the items.
Achee had been part of the Laura Mae’s and Helping Hands family for two years. She said the ministry is supported by “so many different churches in the community, with different beliefs. But we all care for the person and volunteers, so here we are.”
“The common thread they all share is their desire to serve the poor, oppressed, orphaned, widowed and marginalized,” said Kristen Bulgrien, director of community partnerships.
Also helping out at Laura Mae’s is a member of their Employee Mentoring Ministry that helps women gain retail experience for work in commercial retail.
“The EMM offers a few different positions and only one is in Laura Mae’s,” Bulgrien said. “The program is not geared to women specifically, and also has one janitorial position and warehouse position.”
The person who does get selected through the EMM to work at Laura Mae’s is usually female, because it is a women’s clothing shop. Bulgrien said that person works 10 hours a week and meets weekly with a case manager, usually a social work intern.
“The whole goal is to be a stepping stone to long-term, full-time employment somewhere else in the community,” Bulgrien said.
When a social work intern is not scheduled, Bulgrien steps in to mentor the EMM intern.
“This past summer I had someone graduate out of program who is now working full-time in a school system,” Bulgrien said. “She worked with me once a week about employment goals, past experiences, what she wanted to be doing. We got her some training, found jobs she was interested in and updated her resume. She worked incredibly hard and, before summer, was hired.”
Bulgrien calls the Employment Mentoring Ministry one of the most important programs at Helping Hands. “We have food and clothing and those are meeting a need for a day or for the short term, but the EMM is designed to help people develop skills that will benefit them in the long term and, hopefully, gain employment that will definitely serve them in the longer term. We capitalize on their skills to help them do better and help them take steps to get out of poverty, which is what we are all about.”
Bulgrien, originally from Lancaster, Pa., oversees the community engagement and outreach for the ministry, as well as the grant writing and fundraising. Her passion for helping others is life-long. She graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in Christian education and ministry, and earned her master’s in social work from Baylor University. Before coming to Helping Hands, she spent two years teaching English in Compacion, Haiti.
“It was challenging living in Haiti,” Bulgrien said. She taught students, grades K-5 and tutored students, grades 6 to 12. “You learn to live a lot more simply.”
She shared an apartment with a roommate and enjoyed running water and indoor plumbing, but electricity was a “hit or miss.” Because the country runs on diesel fuel, electricity was available in one part of town at a time.
Despite the lack of some modern conveniences and the high poverty (she said Haiti is the poorest country), leaving her students and their families was difficult.
“I grew to love them and look to them as family,” she said. “Life is simple there. You don’t get bogged down in technology and advancement. There are relationship opportunities. When the power goes out and you can’t do computer work, you sit around and talk to people.”