TACOMA – This is a story of triumph, a story about people working through a financial crisis and making the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Tacoma-Pierce strong again.
Two years ago, a former bookkeeper for the nonprofit pleaded guilty for taking more than $500,000 from the coffers over a 10-year period. St. Vincent de Paul was forced to eliminate jobs, fight to avoid bankruptcy and struggle to continue its mission of helping the poor.
Now the organization is celebrating a fresh beginning with a relocated Puyallup store on Canyon Road East, a revamped board of directors and a new sense of purpose. Though the store opened May 24, the grand opening is slated for noon July 28.
Staff member Chris Forberg sorts through donations at the new St. Vincent de Paul thrift store on Canyon Road East in Puyallup. Photo: Courtesy St. Vincent de Paul Tacoma-Pierce
“This store marks a new, positive chapter for us,” said Joyce Walters, interim executive director for the St. Vincent de Paul council. “Customers [from the South Hill store] panicked at first when they thought their store was closing. Relocating to a new store is a real transition for us.”
The venue is nearly twice as large as the South Hill store on Meridian Avenue East, which closed because the landlord planned to demolish the building. The nonprofit then found space on Canyon Road that once housed a liquor store, a chiropractic office and a bank with a covered drive-up window — perfect for drop-off donations. Parking is plentiful, and access to State Route 512 is quick.
“On Meridian at the old store, it was like one of the levels of Dante’s ‘Inferno,’” Walters said. “Just to get to the freeway took half an hour.”
Working toward a solid future
Walters came to work at St. Vincent de Paul about four months ago, after Charlie Thompson, the former executive director, took a job in Minnesota, where he grew up. Walters is a professional interim executive director, who has handled other such assignments in King County. She typically comes into an organization at a time of leadership change, analyzes the situation and makes recommendations to the board before she moves on.
Her expertise is allowing Ed Rowe, board president for the Tacoma-Pierce council, to focus on his No. 1 priority: pushing the council to economic strength.
“Today we are not fiscally healthy,” said Rowe, a parishioner at St. Martin of Tours in Fife. “We are all right, but we are not there. One reason we selected Joyce is for her talents and background in dealing with and getting grants. There is too much gleaning of money out of the stores. We need a combination of revenue sources — separate donations and grants.
“If we are not financially healthy,” Rowe asked, “then how can we help the poor and homeless in our community?”
Rowe is a Boston native who came to Seattle about 20 years ago. He says his style is “East Coast — decisive and positive.” So far, that has been a good fit for moving the nonprofit forward with Walters running the day-to-day operations.
Store manager Vikki Brown gets the bicycle display ready as she opens the new St. Vincent de Paul store on Canyon Road East in Puyallup. Photo: Courtesy St. Vincent de Paul Tacoma-Pierce
Employees live out the mission
Happily, the worst is past, Walters has told the nonprofit’s 17 workers and 15 volunteers. The employees have asked for a deeper immersion into the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s philosophy, especially the idea of bringing the love of Christ to those in need.
“I am incredibly impressed with the staff and the mission of St. Vincent’s and how they live it every day,” Walters said. “They do the right thing when people come in here in need.”
That extends not only to the people who shop for such items as furniture, books, kitchen tools and clothing, but also to workers who have found a new purpose.
Just ask James Waffle, who worked for 12 years at an auto-detailing business in the south Puget Sound area before being laid off in 2010. He arrived at St. Vincent’s in 2011, happy to find work and ready to do his best to help the nonprofit.
Today, Waffle is the processing manager, supervising the yard out back and helping employees learn such skills as customer service, sorting, recycling, and shipping and receiving. He also helps with people who are in work-release programs after serving prison time.
“We work with guys trying to get back into society,” Waffle said. “We pretty much help them out. All the employees enjoy helping other people and doing what they can.”
That’s a core value for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and Tacoma-Pierce workers have taken it to heart, Walters said.
“Your better days are here,” Walters told the staff recently. “Now is the time to smile.”
Find a St. Vincent thrift store
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul Tacoma-Pierce operates two thrift stores:
- 4009 S. 56th St., Tacoma (also the site of administrative offices)
- 10417 Canyon Road E., Puyallup, which has room for furniture and other large items, plus ample parking and easy access. The grand opening is slated for noon July 28.
For more information about the organization, call 253-474-0519.