During a winter school break, back in 1977, I took a group of high schoolers from Tilton, Illinois, to Delmo Community Center, at Homestown, in the Missouri Bootheel. We loaded many boxes of good used clothing and groceries into a borrowed truck, and ten students into two cars, and headed south southwest. The weather was cool and gray overcast, but as cooperative as we could expect for midwinter. The church had contributed to Delmo for many years, but no one had visited at any time that anyone remembered. When we arrived the first thing that we did, with the guidance of a gracious older staff member, was to tour the facilities and to drive around the area. The community center consisted of a barracks-type utility building, about sixty by thirty feet, left over from the end of the Great Depression, a church and a bunkhouse in varied conditions of maintenance and decay. Nearby, Pemiscot and New Madrid Counties showed several crowded housing developments of similar age and condition, filled with nearly identical four room cottages, mostly segregated by race, set in the middle of cotton and tobacco fields, a taste of the deep south in this appendage of Missouri. It was culture shock for our blue collar but relatively comfortable contingent.
Returning to the center, we entered the utility building that housed the thrift store, packed full of goods, and suffering from a leaky roof that left the unmistakable odor of mold and mildew in the place where we would be working. Instead of unloading our donations into the space, we knew that we had a major clean-up to accomplish first.
We spent a day sorting and organizing the clothing and household goods that were there. Every piece of clothing that was damaged was piled outside on the ground in the drizzling rain. The store was supposed to be open again at noon the next day, and we had a lot to do to get it ready. We organized into work crews, and after the existing goods were finally in order, we unloaded the boxes we had brought and placed them neatly onto the racks, tables, and shelves. At the end of the day, we knew that we could have it ready for the reopening the next day. The areas under the leaky roof were cleared of goods, with buckets in place, and the pile of discards outside reached above our heads. We planned to load the discards onto the truck the next day and take them to a landfill.
Our group relaxed for the night in the bunkhouse across the parking lot, enjoyed the warmth and the kitchen for our meals, played some games, sang some songs and slept till 7:30 in the morning, when we rose to a light snowfall and some noise outside. We could see that people were coming and going from the area, but we didn’t know why. When we finished breakfast we returned to the store and saw that the discard pile was almost entirely gone. Only a few of the worst items remained. Neighborhood residents had come to claim the things that we thought were too bad to sell for pennies or to give away inside. As one of the women still there explained, she could turn the things she was holding into usable items. She would wash and mend, take apart and remake, until she had children’s clothing, quilts, aprons, and all kinds of things that could be used. Her plans were multiplied many times by the others who had carried armfuls of the pile away.
We returned to our work, chastened by the new knowledge that our judgments were impaired. After the store reopened people came back, and checked out with normal armfuls of used goods, still celebrating the windfall taken from the discard pile outside and warmly welcoming us into their community.