POR: Marilyn Stroh and Gretchen Johnson March 15, 2009

Thrift store ladies make Palisade a home away from home for migrants

MARILYN STROH, LEFT, and Gretchen Johnson are the co-managers of the Migrant Ministries Community Thrift Shop in Palisade.

Every year the orchards in Palisade and on East Orchard Mesa blossom, bringing prosperity to Grand Valley farmers and a bounty of fresh produce to the rest of us.

But without the migrant farm workers, getting the grapes, peaches, apricots, apples and a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables to market would be practically impossible. That’s why the efforts of several volunteers at the Migrant Ministries Community Thrift Shop in Palisade are so important.

The history of the thrift store and the Migrant Ministry date back to the 1940s. Margaret Talbott and Vera Foss used to deliver food and clothing to the workers, visiting them in their sparsely accommodated barracks.

The effort evolved. Community donations increased as did the level of services provided to migrant workers. An old trailer became their headquarters. Then, in 1988 the Talbott family, one of the largest orchard owners in the valley, purchased the little building — known collectively as the Hospitality Center, 721 Peach Ave. — that the thrift store and migrant community center operate out of today.

The two women who manage the thrift shop daily are, in a way, migrants themselves who sought out and found a home — a home in which they feel comfortable swinging the door wide open and welcoming everyone.

“I was full-time RVing for seven years before I moved here,” said Marilyn Stroh, 69.

Six years ago her husband died of cancer and she sought out the thrift store as a way to busy herself. It was also a way to show appreciation for the support she and her husband had been receiving from others before his death.

“This is my way of giving back for everything that has been given to me,” Stroh said. “This has been my lifeline.”

Gretchen Johnson, 83, started volunteering at the thrift store shortly after arriving in Palisade.

“I was new in the area. I moved here from Oregon 10 years ago,” Johnson said. “I just walked in and volunteered.”

Together the two share duties, managing staff and overseeing the day-to-day operations.

Every day, one or the other arrives before 1 p.m. to turn the key and turn the sign from “closed” to “open.”

“I wouldn’t come down here if I couldn’t work,” Johnson said. “I’m not a little old hen sitting at home hatching eggs.”

Neither woman speaks fluent Spanish. The majority of migrant workers and customers do not speak English very well either.

“There are ways to communicate whether you speak the language or not,” Stroh said.

Sometimes they will hear more than most people simply by sitting and watching a customer for a few minutes. Customers’ eyes will dance about the crowded one-room thrift store, then linger on an item or two a little longer before passing to the next.

If volunteers are unable to communicate verbally with patrons they will take their customer’s hand and walk about the store until finding what they need.

“Sometimes I go out of my way to shake their hand when they come in, partly because how they got here was probably remarkable,” Johnson said.

Unable to speak the language, thousands of miles from home and low on money, most of the migrant workers are simply seeking the necessities of life: T-shirts, work shoes, jeans, toiletries and bedding.

The community has recognized the value of the thrift store and donates quality items, said a fellow thrift store volunteer, Katy Wallace, 79.

“They come without homes and without a lot of their own material needs,” said Wallace, whose mother-in-law was Margaret Talbott. “These people are human beings and we treat them that way.”

The prices reflect the thrift store’s policy. For only $1 anyone can buy a blouse, sweatshirt, T-shirt, dress or many other items of clothing (all in very good condition) or a variety of household goods. Sometimes, the prices are even less.

“You know it is strange,” Johnson said with a smile. “They can come with a huge pile of stuff (to the cash register) and when you ring it all up it is only $2 or $3.”

It’s not about making money or growing the business. It is about being a member of the community and doing what is right. For Johnson and Stroh, as well as the 30 other volunteers here, it is also a reflection of their faith.

The thrift shop is collectively operated by the Migrant Ministries, an assemblage of multiple faiths that work in cooperation for the common good. Each day the thrift shop is staffed by a different church’s congregation.

But there is no need to wear a hard hat when entering. The ladies promise they thump no one with a Bible.

“You just say a prayer and turn it over to Him,” Johnson said.

Often migrant workers are new to the area and the niceties and pleasantries the ladies offer are a comfort.

“We have become part of their entertainment, their home away from home, even if we can’t understand what they say,” Stroh said.

“We meet them in Wal-Mart or on the street and we speak and they have become family,” Johnson said.

It’s a family with a home, a place they can come to find the essentials of life, including a friend.

“This is their building,” Stroh said.


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