A tall, older gentleman walks into Lou Warner’s cramped office unannounced and without introduction says, “You’ve got fresh meat.”Warner, general manager of Hillcrest Thrift Store in Platte City, politely smiles back and starts to work out a timeline for the new volunteer. He cuts short our conversation on this Friday afternoon in February and hustles back out to the spacious floor of the shop located at 1305 Branch St.
Eventually, I wander out myself and find Warner, assistant manager Dave Seim and the man wrapping up their introductions.
More than 100 volunteers help out at Hillcrest each month, about 50 of them regular contributors. Warner also cycles through various groups looking for worthwhile projects and individuals fulfilling a requirement for community service hours. He understands that most non-profit operations would love to have that type of turnout, but open six days a week, Hillcrest always welcomes new recruits to help sort through the massive amount of donations received — furniture, books, sporting goods, jewelry and especially clothes — and to help make sure customers in need leave the store with all the right items.
“We will take just about anybody we can get,” Warner says with generous smile.
Hillcrest opened in a former grocery store location on June 1, 2013 after a massive renovation. The workers that keep the operation going strong have stories to tell if you take the time to stop and listen.
Xavier Babcock keeps his ear buds around his neck, but he rarely seems to have the music playing on this surprisingly crisp and sunny day.
As vehicles pull up, the skinny 15-year-old Platte County High School student picks up donated items and drags them through the door at the back dock. He started helping out at Hillcrest when members of Twelve Apostles Catholic Church held a collection drive for the store.
Babcock now comes back whenever he can, basically Monday through Friday during the summer and when he has the chance during the school year. His dad dropped him off this day with school out of session for a teacher in-service.
“They’d rather I do this than nothing,” Babcock said of his parents’ support for volunteering.
Once he can legally drive, Babcock said he might pursue a paying job but still hopes to find time to help at Hillcrest. The variety of items donated can be amusing, he said, and recently, a giant margarita glass and a large bundle of plastic drinking straws that appeared used but washed found their way inside. Those who haul in the donations are the first line of defense in determining what items won’t be fit to sell.
Babcock picks up a batting helmet for baseball or softball and puts it in the keeper pile. A blue and white partner to that one looks a little more beat up, and he carefully inspects the condition.
“If we clean it off …,” he says.
Carleen Curry went out on to the floor looking to work on the bookshelves.
Leaving her haven in the back room proved a little problematic this time. A customer engages her in a lengthy conversation, and she listens as patiently and politely as possible as the story begins to reach the point of rambling.
Eventually, Curry makes it back to her cubby with a desk lamp for additional light.
Books are packed on shelves around Curry, and this is where she prefers to spend her time, quietly inspecting, analyzing and preparing them for sale. She spends four days a week at Hillcrest most of the time, although she says confidently, “I take Wednesday for myself.”
Some of the books contain random items, and Curry displays some of them in her small workspace, including a Bill Clinton $3 bill tacked to her bookshelf. Her desk also contains various figurines and small toys that she calls her entertainment.
Keeping to herself is part of Curry’s book work, but she also doesn’t mind the time spent out in the “For Sale” section of shelves and finding herself in conversation.
“People just want you to listen to them, and that’s all they need,” she said. “I can’t spend all my time out there or I’d never get any books out.”
Warner treats Karegan Turner like a long-lost relative when he sees her behind the counter.
“You’re back?” he asks.
Turner didn’t show up to work in January because she was taking classes six days a week at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo. A 2014 Platte County graduate, Turner came to Hillcrest well before it became a shop, volunteering with the high school’s Interact Club during the renovations.
Once the store opened, Turner just kind of stuck with the cause and spends most of her volunteer hours working the cash register right up front, talking with customers and getting to know the regulars.
“The people are really nice here,” she said. “I like interacting with the people, and I like the mission.”
Turner still lives in Platte City while she works toward a two-year degree at Maple Woods. She might want to go to the opposite corner of the state to Southeast Missouri State University, but until then, two to three days a week will be spent at Hillcrest, as her busy schedule allows.
June Kumm almost burned herself out trying to take care of the jewelry department. Always meticulous in her work, she started to clean pieces at home and didn’t know when to say no to her volunteer efforts for Hillcrest.
“I drive myself crazy. Now the Lord has me talking with different people,” she said.
Kumm’s work at the store now serves a totally different purpose, and it’s not related to the items available. She looks to talk with customers, especially those clearly down on their luck, and offer support. She even prays with those who truly believe in spiritual help.
Allan Kumm smiles as June talks, a proud husband who shares in her commitment to helping out at Hillcrest.
Retired since 1999, Allan Kumm uses his skills to provide handyman work. He used to work maintenance on the runways of KCI Airport as an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration and now travels the short distance from the couple’s home to provide a variety of services to Hillcrest.
“You just help when you can,” he said. “I’m one that disagrees with people who say that there’s nothing to do.”
Allan Kumm grabs a hammer and heads out to the sporting goods section and helps affix some golf memorabilia to the wall. He returns to the back room, grabs a ladder and goes up one of the walls to grab a long fluorescent light bulb.
Even with duty calling, Allan Kumm doesn’t mind talking about why he works there.
“It’s such a good mission, and I just appreciate people who try to help themselves,” he said.
Allan Kumm also spends time checking the functionality of donated appliances. He comes in almost every day, except when Hillcrest stays closed on Sundays. June Kumm is usually there along with him, chatting up those in need of a friend, a shoulder to cry on or just someone to listen, as Curry said.
While the number of volunteers is ample most of the time, the customers that pass through Hillcrest each day require their service and more. Business stays steady, and the community clearly appreciates the helpful Hillcrest mission.
And you never know who the next volunteer or next person in need will be.
“There’s a lot of stories out there,” Allan Kumm said.