‘I saw so much giving this year’

Victoria’s Hope takes on challenges of 2020

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The Victoria’s Hope thrift store, Victoria’s Hope Thrift and Treasures, is located at 1430 Fourth St. SW in Cullman. (Nick Griffin for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – April Bowen German, with the help of family and friends, created Victoria’s Hope in her mother’s memory as a ministry to single parents in need. Over a short time, the charity turned into a business, with a Cullman-based thrift store that allows families in need to shop for free and that donates substantial portions of its sales revenues to other charitable causes.

As with many such organizations, Victoria’s Hope was hit hard in 2020, but looked for and found opportunities to continue its ministry.

German told The Tribune, “2020 has definitely been an interesting year, and reflecting back on it, there was so much fear and uncertainty, but I’ve also seen so much good come out of this year as well. This year has proven to me even more how this community comes together to help one another in a time of need. 

“A couple of weeks before COVID hit, we were getting close to reaching our goal of paying off numerous school lunchroom debts by the end of the school year. We were able to pay off one school’s debt before the shutdown. We were closed for close to three months but still had rent and utilities to be paid on our building, so unfortunately, we weren’t able to pay off all that we wanted to but felt blessed that we were able to at least cover one school. The shutdown was rough; we use the money we make off of the thrift store to pay our rent and utilities for the building we are in. Without the store being open, it was hard, but we have managed to be able to stay open and continue to serve our community, so for that I am so thankful. 

“During the shutdown, I felt useless. We couldn’t open the doors to even our clients because of the risk of COVID. I wanted so bad to do something to help the community during those months but didn’t know how. We offered a book box outside our store for children to get books that they could read during the shutdown. That seemed to be a big hit. We had to refill it several times, but I still have a regret that that wasn’t enough.”

Reopening to bigger needs

“After the shutdown, our client numbers dramatically increased,” said German. “We went from serving around 20 families a month to close to 40 average. There were people without work who never had been before. There was a greater need for warm clothing this year because there were more people that could not afford to get their kids new clothing for the colder months than usual because of layoffs and sickness. We also had a bigger number of families sponsored for our Christmas Hope program. 

 

“But what amazed me is, as our client numbers began to rise, so did the people offering to help. I saw so much giving this year, and I think it has made us all realize it could be us at any time being the ones needing the help. I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with asking for help this year, because they had never needed it before. But most of us are all just one missed paycheck from being in that same situation, and that’s what I try and remind my clients. It’s OK to ask for help. I think growing up like I did, watching my mother struggle, has made me feel more of a connection to these people.”

Community support and partnerships are keys to success

German said, “The amount of support from the community never ceases to amaze me. I know I sound like a broken record, but this community will never understand how much of an impact it has made on my family’s life. We have made so many lifelong friends and people that we consider family through this. This little idea I had that I started out of my home two and a half years ago has turned into so much more. My husband now runs the store for me full-time with our 18-year-old son, and I’m so glad we are able to experience this together. I have even seen my three boys change through all of this. It warmed my heart to have my 18 year old come home the day before Christmas Eve with a list and say, ‘Mom, we need to help this family. She isn’t able to get Christmas for her kids this year.’ As a mom, that was a proud moment. My kids get to experience God’s work through other people, and for that I will always be grateful. And none of it could have been possible without this community’s support. We couldn’t do this without the community constantly bringing in donation after donation. 

“Because of this community, we have been able to serve roughly 400 families this year, whether through monetary donations, to clothing and household necessities, or helping families get back on their feet after a house fire. Our Christmas Hope served 92 children this year. 

“One thing I love about this community is how all the agencies work together for the wellbeing of the entire community. We currently are working with the Cullman County (Public) Library providing children’s books for their Free Little Library. We also are in the works with Wallace State to find applicants for a scholarship made for single parents to go back and get their education. We have also worked aside Curt’s Closet this year, Flourish, the Link, DHR, Restoring Women Outreach, CCCDD, Saving Forgotten Warriors, local schools and many more. It really does take a village.”

The “Wow” factor

Said German, “It’s amazing the ‘wow’ stories you see every time you are in that shop. I’m also a teacher, so I don’t get to experience it as much as my husband and son do, but I love hearing their stories when they get home. And when I do get the opportunity to be up there, the wow stories are endless. I can be checking someone out or helping a client when next thing you know, I’m crying like a baby. The interactions of people, the people’s stories, you just see such an amazing side of people. And you just connect with them. And then a relationship is built, then a friendship. People that have just been in there as a regular customer becomes friends with other regular customers. Former clients becoming customers, feeling so proud that they are able to provide for their family again, then even turn into sponsors helping others. This is the second Christmas in a row that a former client of mine has sponsored a family for Christmas. And they both said the same thing: ‘I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, now it’s my turn to pay it forward.’ It’s simply amazing. 

 

“And I’m so glad my children get to experience that. I’ve seen so many people bring in a donation of a couch, or say they are about to donate a couch, and then someone will come in an hour later needing one. It’s just so amazing and it has definitely strengthened my faith as (well) as my family’s. We took a big leap of faith when Craig left his sales career to run the shop for me. He was a heavy machine salesman for over 20 years. But we couldn’t afford to pay anyone. So we discussed it, prayed about it, and said, ‘OK, either we are all in or we aren’t at all.’ And we went with going all in. And it was scary, and still is. Craig can probably always go back to selling heavy equipment again, and there’s been times this past year we have almost had to make that decision, but the Lord has shown out every time and has said, ‘I’m not finished yet!’ So as long as the Lord provides, we will continue to do this. I’m just so thankful we were able to keep this going even through a pandemic. That tells me right there we have something going, maybe.”

Plans for 2021

German shared, “When thinking of my plans for 2021, I kind of want to laugh, because if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that things can change in the blink of an eye. If you had asked me two and a half years ago (if) my family would be doing what we are doing now, I would have thought you were crazy. Even if you had told me right when I began this where we would be now, I wouldn’t believe you. So I’ve learned we can have goals, but we never know how they are going to pan out. But I do have big goals for Victoria’s Hope; my mind is always spinning. 

“I would like to begin by focusing this coming year on seniors in high school. My son is a senior this year, and I never knew how much it was going to cost. It’s not cheap. And what not be a whole lot to you, could be a paycheck to someone else. And every child deserves it, the diploma plaque, the cap and gown, the tassel, even the senior shirt. They’ve worked hard and have faced a lot at the end of their high school career, especially those seniors this year. So they deserve it, and their parents shouldn’t have to worry about how they are going to get it for their child. So I would love to begin working with the local guidance counselors and schools to see if there were any seniors that might benefit from that extra help.” 

About the thrift store, German said, “The thrift store has been a tremendous help to get through 2020; we definitely couldn’t do all we do without it. There is some planning right now about a change with our thrift store, so stay tuned. I can’t get over the lines that form there sometimes waiting on us to open. I would have never thought it. But it’s the community wanting to support us, and that’s such a blessing. I think our ‘3/2/1’ catch helps, because it allows people that may have never owned a designer bag before to be able to purchase one for only $3 or less. When I see people loading up on designer bags and name brand clothing, it warms my heart to see. I was the kid who wanted those things, begged my mom for them, knowing she couldn’t afford it. Now maybe these parents can get their child something nice and not have to pay a crazy amount for it. It pays our rent and power, and that’s all we need. There have been months where we have even made enough that we could give back financially in some way. We would love to be able to get to a point where that is something we could do every month, have enough allocated that we could give what’s left over to various nonprofits or other areas in our community that might need help. But it’s going to take a lot of hard work, and that’s why we couldn’t do it with our community and definitely our wonderful volunteers. 

“We have countless volunteers that we could not do without. They put in countless hours making sure we have everything done that we need done for the week. I feel bad sometimes it seems like they are there more than us. <laughter> But I think it’s because of the same reason me and my family love it. You see the good in people in there; you see things happen that couldn’t be anything less than God’s work. And you become a family. I’m so thankful for this community and the support they have given us. We also have been blessed with many individual financial donors as well, and it seems like it’s always been right when we needed it, but all of them have always chosen to stay anonymous. We like to call them our ‘angels in disguise.’” 

Prayers for Robert

For Victoria’s Hope customers, encountering the always smiling, always friendly, always helpful Robert Squires has become a high point of visits to the shop. The 2020 scourge caught him, though, and left him hospitalized with serious health challenges.

Said German, “Robert came to us through Flourish (of Cullman) and immediately became a member of our family. If you have been at the shop, you have met Robert, and that means you love him. And he loves this community. And he has been in the hospital for over a month on a ventilator with complications from pneumonia. He is slowly improving but still needs lots of prayers. Victoria’s Hope just isn’t the same without him.”

The final word

“I have a pretty good feeling for Victoria’s Hope and this community for 2021,” said German. “I lost my stepfather in February of this year, a man I thought hung the moon. I like to repeat to myself over and over the words he used to tell me, ‘Everything’s going to be alright!’”

Victoria’s Hope’s thrift store, Victoria’s Hope Thrift and Treasures, is located at 1430 Fourth St. SW in Cullman. Find out more at www.facebook.com/victoriashope1952.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com