We recently had the opportunity to speak with Tony Whitter, Executive Director of Blessings Abound. Blessings Abound is a nonprofit thrift store that supports more than 50 nonprofits through the resale of donations, including Flourish Furniture Bank. In this interview, Tony shares insights into making a difference in the lives of our neighbors through the power of ministry, entrepreneurship, and community.
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Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Tony Whitter. I’m the executive director of Blessings Abound. I’ve been here for 11 years.
How long has Blessings Abound been around?
15 years. We started with 8000 sq ft at 95th & Nall Ave in Overland Park, along with a small group of very dedicated volunteers.
What was that process of growth like?
Mostly it’s a lot of people working hard. When you’re driven by a mission, working hard is easy. Blessings Abound is driven by helping those in need through support of local nonprofits.
What brought you to Blessings Abound and nonprofit work?
I was asked by Metro Lutheran Ministry to consider Blessings Abound. I enjoy serving the community. When I visited Blessings Abound, I was working on the staff of Trinity Lutheran Church. I had never even been into a thrift store before. I don’t like to shop.
What I was interested in was ministry. The first day I came to Blessings Abound, there was nobody shopping in the store. There was one person working – the cashier and two volunteers in the back. I saw this lady ironing a shirt, and it just blew me away that a volunteer would take the time to iron a donated shirt. What drew me to Blessings Abound was the clear heart of the volunteers. It also tapped my entrepreneurial spirit because Blessings Abound was so small. It was fun to build a business, and more importantly, a ministry.
Has Blessings Abound always supported nonprofits in Kansas City?
Yes. We started off supporting Metro Lutheran Ministry and the Lutheran Urban Mission Agency. Blessings Abound was started by those two nonprofits. We were growing rapidly. Blessings Abound started supporting other organizations in addition to the original two. It just kept growing as more organizations began advocating for Blessings Abound. This strategy fed upon itself in a really positive way for the benefit of helping individuals in need.
How many organizations do you currently support?
We support eight organizations on a monthly basis: Metro Lutheran Ministry, Lutheran Urban Mission Agency, Flourish Furniture Bank, Operation Breakthrough, Pete’s Garden, Catholic Charities, Hope Builders, and Mission Southside.Blessings Abound serves many individuals through the organizations we fund in the areas of emergency services, education, empowerment, aid to the disadvantaged, and related services in the Kansas City area. We’ve given grants to more than 50 nonprofits through the Blessings Fund, which operates similar to a small foundation.
How do you choose which organizations to support?
The process begins with similar missions – helping those in need. Our core mission is redistribution and resale of donations to aid individuals in need. Our community relationships have evolved rather organically, or more specifically by God’s will. So, no different than when we first started working with Flourish years ago, when it was My Father’s House, we’ve had various types of collaboration since that time. It wasn’t long after you became Flourish that we began monthly financial support. The process has evolved in its own way with each organization in terms of both our financial support as well as the advocacy from the recipient organization.
What makes Blessings Abound different from other thrift stores?
Kansas City is unique in that it has a lot of thrift organizations. What some people don’t realize is that some of those organizations are actually for-profit companies. Blessings Abound is unique as a hub for financing various local organizations. Everything goes directly back to the community. When organizations advocate for Blessings Abound, they’re advocating for the KC community. Blessings Abound works to maximize the impact of in-kind donations and the benefit of donating to a faith-based thrift operation.
Can you talk about how Flourish and Blessings Abound collaborate?
From a business perspective, our partnership benefits Blessings Abound by giving us a better presence in the community, and it benefits Flourish by supplying you with more resources, financial support and furnishings. Co-promotion and co-donation solicitation are natural between Flourish and Blessings Abound. A win for one is a win for the other. It’s a win for the donor because the items they’re donating are going to find a good home. It’s a win for the volunteer because the volunteer’s time has been put to good use. It’s a win for the staff because they’re in a mission-oriented environment. And finally, it’s a win for the organizations that we support like Flourish. So between Flourish and Blessings, donors can maximize the impact of all the donations they have, from clothing to houseware to décor to electronics and home furnishings. Together, it’s a complete donation service. This is the most natural part of the collaboration. BA picks up items for Flourish at the same time as picking up furnishings for BA. Flourish can capture non-essential furniture (e.g. sofa tables, antiques, bookcases and high-end furniture) and pass along to Blessings Abound to be sold.
There are also larger donations that can be shared across multiple organizations. You might find, for example, that hotel donations are more suited for Flourish. But it might also be easy for Flourish to facilitate a clothing drive as part of something else they were doing, which would benefit Blessings Abound. We can also cross-promote volunteer opportunities. I know that on certain occasions Flourish volunteers shop at BA!
What kinds of items does Blessings Abound share with Flourish?
There are a few different categories. We differentiate between items that are usable and those that are sellable. You might have something that’s difficult to sell because of its style. But that doesn’t mean it’s not in good condition. So we can pass them along to Flourish in hopes that they can find a home. In other cases, it’s simply excess. We process a lot of items and share them with Flourish when we have too many. This applies to furniture, linens and essential housewares.
The other term I use is necessity and non-necessity furniture. We sell a lot of necessity furniture here, but there might also be opportunities for Flourish to get non-necessity furniture that you really don’t need to give away that could come here, where it would do more benefit through funding generated back to the community.
What are your thoughts on Blessings Abound’s environmental impact?
You should google the giant pile of clothing off the coast of Chile. A lot of people don’t realize how much clothing is thrown away. Anytime somebody supports our thrift store, they’re certainly taking one step to keep something out of the dumpster. We put as little as possible in the dumpster. Clothing and other soft goods we can’t sell don’t get thrown away, they go to another organization that conducts a proper recycling operation to reuse it. Our goal is to maximize the value of the in-kind donation, not just the monetary value, but the positive impact on the environment. Go Green!
Blessings Abound offers a free furniture pickup service. Can you say more about it?
The pickup service is a ministry in itself because we’re oftentimes helping people at a strenuous milestone in life. I refer to the 4 D’s of donations: divorce, downsizing, decluttering, and death. Those are the milestones that often generate a lot of donations. We help individuals at those points in their life by providing a pickup service to make things easier. We get a lot of last-minute calls because somebody didn’t show up, and is there any chance we could come pick this up. This can be stressful for the family. In addition to getting things that we can repurpose for good, we’re also helping the family through the transition. It’s not uncommon to see some tears as people are watching all those material possessions go out the door. When you lift up the couch cushions, there’s sometimes a lot of junk in there – food, toys, coins, the remote – those are all memories!
How does Blessings Abound benefit customers?
Blessings Abound is also a ministry to the shopper. On a typical day, we have six to eight hundred shoppers with four to five hundred transactions. And we get 150 to 300 drop-off donations. Furniture has gotten very expensive. Coming here to get a $50 bookshelf or a $100 mattress/couch can be better even than getting something for free, since customers can choose something they want and the reward of using their hard-earned money. Certainly, at times, the financial resources simply are not available – thank goodness for Flourish.
How can Flourish donors and volunteers help support Blessings Abound?
It’s important to keep up the continued advocacy. We’re open six days a week and we have hundreds of people every day. Our customers often ask “where does the money go?” So multiple times a day, Blessings Abound is talking about Flourish. Donors like to see nonprofits collaborating, so that their efforts aren’t duplicated. The number one thing volunteers should realize is that when they advocate for Blessings Abound, they’re advocating for Flourish.
The next six weeks are a busy time for us because we’re processing a lot of seasonal merchandise. If you have any individuals who might not be interested in an ongoing commitment at Blessings Abound who could help with seasonal activity. We’ve gone to the effort of saving two to three hundred tubs of holiday and Christmas merchandise we’re now processing. So if somebody wants a change of pace, they can come over here for a few hours and process holiday merchandise.