By Wally Kennedy
Betsy Bonin thinks working at the Hope Chest Thrift Store will help her turn a corner that other women who have spent time in jail might find daunting.
“I’m in a six-month program that helps you get on your feet with some job skills,” she said. “This job training has really been a lifesaver for me. I have some direction, some stability now.”
Bonin also lives at Hope House, a recovery center that provides mentoring and counseling for women who have been in jail and are re-entering society. The program is approved by the Missouri Department of Corrections, and as many as six to seven women can live in the transitional housing at a time.
The thrift store is an outgrowth of the housing program, said Kathy Wilson, executive director of Helping Hands Housing, which runs both the thrift store and Hope House. Proceeds from thrift store sales help fund Hope House Ministries.
Bonin said she really likes her job and is thrilled to be in the new storefront that Hope Chest Thrift Store recently occupied at 215 E. Seventh St.
“I love the new store. It’s so much better than the old,” she said. “The space is larger, and the location is awesome. I love working with the people and helping them find a bargain. You know, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to look nice.”
Bonin has been on the job since September, after a stint in prison for possession of a controlled substance.
The move to the new storefront from a shopping center at 1651 W. Seventh St. has dramatically increased the thrift store’s visibility.
“The move has doubled our volume, and that happened when our signs went up a few days ago,” Wilson said. “And, it hasn’t let up.”
The new store has 11,000 square feet. That compares with 6,000 square feet in the previous location. It’s stocked with clothing for women, men and children, housewares, books and furniture.
Wilson said the Hope Chest Thrift Store opened in December 2010 to help finance Hope House, but its mission broadened after the May 2011 tornado to help those affected by the storm. Donors to the thrift store get a tax-deductible receipt for their contribution.
Wilson estimates that 700 people were clothed by the Hope Chest after the storm.
“We clothed whole families,” she said. “Because of the donations we received after the tornado, we have more than enough clothing to last us for years. We are very thankful for that.”
But it’s the work to help women get back on their feet that guides the operation. Doing that is more costly and complex than one might think, Wilson said.
“The employment we provide helps with finances,” she said. “These women face restitution costs, court costs, incarceration fees, intervention fees and child support. We give them a place to live and a job because employers won’t hire them as felons.”
Wilson said many employers are reluctant to hire felons even though bonding programs exist to help employers hire them. Employers also can qualify for tax incentives, she said.
“When they go into prison, they have a number put around their neck,” she said. “It’s like the number is never taken off. It’s like they are still wearing that number after they get out.
“If they go back to prison because they can’t get a job, guess who ends up paying the bill: the taxpayer. That’s why we are proud that our success rate is 92 percent, and that we are giving the offender a light at the end of the tunnel and a way to restore self-confidence and hope.”
HELPING HANDS HOUSING INC. works with a number of community partners, including Access Family Care, the Community Clinic, various churches, the Joplin Ministerial Alliance, the Missouri Re-Entry Program, the Salvation Army and Souls Harbor, according to Kathy Wilson, executive director.