By Jeff Zdrale
When Tina Seegers told me that Neenah’s Bethesda Thrift Shop at 846 Fox Point Plaza had changed its name, I thought she was referring to only her store where she’s been the director for 12 years. I was wrong. This wide-reaching human services organization operates in 13 states. Wisconsin is a good example of the many opportunities that Bethesda – now called AbleLight – is providing to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Our name was officially changed nationwide in January of this year,” Seegers said. “AbleLight is a registered service organization with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. But we welcome any and all people.”
In Wisconsin, the organization offers community-based homes and also supportive living assistance to people in their own homes. AbleLight provides community day programming for participants along the I-94 corridor between Milwaukee and Madison. Employment, respite for clients and their caregivers and even a college experience at AbleLight College, a partnership with Concordia University, round out AbleLight’s menu of services.
“Peoples’ physical, housing, employment, education and independence needs – you name it – and I’d bet that we do it somewhere,” Seegers said.
Seegers went on to tell me about the evolution this nationwide effort has experienced over the years.
“We started in 1901 in Watertown, Wis., with what was then called a ‘work farm’ for cognitively impaired people,” she said.
Seegers said the initiative grew into offering group homes for those workers. Now, she said, it means providing co-residency places for clients in apartment settings.
As I read about the projects AbleLight offers in the other 12 states, I became curious about how the Neenah shop operates.
Seegers, past director of the St. Vincent de Paul store in Appleton and present head of the Neenah AbleLight Thrift Shop, said the store essentially is a resale shop that carries a wide variety of items.
“We have bedding, linens, clothing, toys, books, furniture, picture frames and everything in between,” she said. “We always have certain groups of items on sale. All of our items are donated, although we do purchase a few types of products like socks and mattresses. And we do this with one director, me; two assistant directors and two part-time cashiers and donation receivers. But we couldn’t do all that we do without our volunteers.”
Like most service groups, the AbleLight Thrift Shop saw a big reduction in its volunteer numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Before COVID, we had over 70 (volunteers) on our rolls and now we are working with 35 active volunteers,” Seegers said.
On the tour Seegers gave me last April, I saw that the store’s layout is huge, not to mention the receiving area in the rear, which is almost as big. “How do you assign jobs and how much time do these volunteers put in?” I wondered.
Seegers gave me a quick rundown of the facts. The store is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
“We expect the volunteers to work at least 4 hours every other week, although many give more,” she said. “We also would like them to make a 6-month commitment to their jobs, especially those that require interaction with customers.”
Seegers ran through the volunteer application process with me.
Prospective volunteers can pick up applications at the store or access them online at www.AbleLight.org.
With AbleLight’s focus on bringing people with differing abilities into its work force, Seegers also gets names of applicants from county programs, such as the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, the W-2 program, organizations that serve people with developmental disabilities, those dealing with worker compensation plans, and special education students from Neenah High School. The RSVP offices in Winnebago and Outagamie counties also are good sources of referrals.
After receiving a volunteer application or referral, Seegers usually will invite the person to come in for a walk-through.
“This gives them an idea of the wide array of products we carry and gives me an idea of what areas may be of particular interest to them,” she said. “I tend to start some who aren’t sure, in the clothing area where they are teamed up with a buddy. As they become more familiar with the whole scope of activities, volunteers can ask to be assigned to another area. We want them to be pleased to give us of their time.”
I asked Seegers about the makeup of her volunteer group. I learned that women account for about two-thirds of the group and that most of the volunteers are retired.
“But volunteers of any age are always welcome,” Seegers said.
To learn more about volunteering with AbleLight, contact Seegers at 920-725-7467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Zdrale is an AmeriCorps Seniors volunteer with the Retired & Senior Volunteer 55+ Program.