With the help of computer-savvy teenagers, the Ladies of Charity take their thrift store worldwide

The British toy soldier was an unusual donation to the Ladies of Charity Thrift Store. The nonprofit at Samuell and East Grand is accustomed to receiving used clothing and castoffs of every kind, but the circa 1960s action man stood out from the usual clutter.

Emily Hartnett, the local chapter president, thought the store could garner $10 for him instead of the typical $5. Volunteer Libby Galvin wondered if he might be worth more, so she placed him under a glass counter with a sign that read: “If you’re interested, place a bid.”

But soon afterward he mysteriously disappeared, and no one could find him.

“We just forgot all about it,” Galvin says.

The toy soldier was still AWOL when three Bishop Lynch High School seniors began volunteering with Ladies of Charity last fall to fulfill their required service hours. One of them, Kate Doherty, describes herself as an “avid thrift shopper” who was looking forward to working in the secondhand shop. But tagging clothes didn’t seem particularly helpful, especially with plenty of other volunteers pitching in.

“At first I didn’t really feel like I was going to be of any use,” Doherty says.

Pretty soon, however, Galvin approached Doherty and the other students with an idea that had been rolling around in her head for a few months: listing a few select items on eBay.com, an auction website.

“On occasion — and I mean occasion — we get some items that probably could sell for more than what we could get for them at the store,” Galvin says, “so I had started putting things aside to try to research it a little bit.”

Galvin was familiar with the eBay concept, which allows people all over the world to log onto the Internet and bid on items. But she didn’t know where to start, and the other Ladies of Charity volunteers weren’t much help. The workers have aged since the aid organization was founded in 1969, and now the vast majority of the women are “past senior status,” Hartnett says.

“Some people said if you put a computer in the office, we’ll quit,” Hartnett says.

So when Galvin looked at the Bishop Lynch students, she saw technologically savvy teenagers who knew how to use computers and digital cameras. They agreed to help, and began by listing an antique doll. Galvin grew worried, however, when they placed a 50-cent price tag on it.

“I said, ‘I’m not sure I want to sell this for 50 cents,’ but Kate said, ‘That’s how you do this — start low and people come look,’” Galvin says.

Sure enough, by midweek the bids had climbed to $40, and when it was all said and done, the doll sold for more than $180.

“That was very exciting right off the bat,” Doherty says.

Several months later, the toy soldier reappeared, turning up in the back of the store under a pantry. Since the Bishop Lynch students had already established the eBay accounts, Galvin easily put him up for auction, starting the bidding at 50 cents.

“I had done the research on this little one, and I didn’t hold out much expectation for him based on what I had researched on other action men and soldier dolls,” Galvin says, “but the key to this guy was that he was in his original packaging.”

The bids quickly escalated into triple and then quadruple digits. By the time the auction ended, the Lades of Charity could barely believe their eyes — the final price was a whopping $4,650, more than the nonprofit normally makes in a month.

“I say that action man was waiting for the Ladies of Charity to discover eBay so he would be worth more than $5,” Hartnett says.

Every penny will go toward the 1,400 sack lunches volunteers make and hand out to the homeless each month and the $250 in cash they give away each day to help people with rent, utilities and medical bills. The charity has almost zero overhead, and what the staff of volunteers accomplishes is “nothing short of amazing,” Galvin says, especially considering that the median age is in the 70s or 80s. Hartnett agrees, but when she took over as president two years ago, she knew the organization would need young blood to survive.

“I thought, my goodness we may have to shut down because our store is not that profitable,” Harnett says. “What has happened that has got me so excited is that we are getting younger people. We need them so badly.”

Galvin credits Bishop Lynch’s Judy Porter, who coordinates the community service projects, for sending the help Ladies of Charity needed in the form of high school seniors. Porter considers the eBay experience a boon for both sides.

“It’s been a huge windfall for them, and it’s been a tremendous boost for our seniors who thought that maybe we’re wasting their time,” Porter says. “It’s something that [the Ladies of Charity] obviously are going to benefit from for years to come in enormous ways.”

Now, when sorters at the thrift store come across something unusual, they know to put it aside in a special pile. Lightning rarely strikes twice, and the toy soldier windfall might never recur, but Galvin never knows what she’s going to find.

“I always get crazy, eclectic things down there. Some of them make me laugh; some of them are old and just strange,” she says. “But what’s strange to me is a collector’s item to someone else.”

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