La Grange may be characterized as a small Texas town, but it’s not sleepy. After Hurricane Harvey and despite being inundated with 10 feet of water, Second Chance Emporium became a front line disaster relief center and is now growing into a sustainable economic engine for the city.
The story of Second Chance Emporium began in 1996. The Rt. Rev. Dena Harrison, then rector of St. James Episcopal Church in La Grange, led the decision for the Second Chance to become a shared ecumenical venture. This move to wider shared leadership proved pivotal not only to the survival of the small church shop, but in becoming a flourishing community gathering place and economic driver for nonprofits throughout Fayette county.
“It's been more than 20 years since Dena Harrison shifted the St. James thrift store to one shared by eight different churches, said current rector, the Rev. Eric Hungerford. "So it's been this hub of activity where all these different church volunteers have gathered for generations in their community.”
The rainfall generated by Hurricane Harvey devastated areas of La Grange in 2017. The Second Chance Emporium quickly filled with water from the Colorado river and the store was declared a total loss.
“We had an emergency meeting of our board the Tuesday following the flood and we decided unanimously that we were going to operate as a disaster relief center," said Rev. Hungerford, who also serves as board president of Second Chance. "I said to them at that meeting, ‘Look, you all have been training for this for the last 20 years because you know how to sort clothes, you know how to organize things quickly, you know how to distribute things, you know how to get people through lines quickly, you know you all have these skill innately. So, let's put that to use in our community.'”
The plan was good, but they had no building and no inventory. The Amen Food Pantry, a regular beneficiary of the shop’s profits, had recently acquired a new warehouse. Still empty, pantry leaders offered the space to Second Chance. Within days, the shop was open and brimming with donations that poured in from the community and around the state.
“There were two straight weeks with a constant line of cars coming into town dropping off donations. It was kind of the perfect storm in a sense,” Hungerford said. “Well, maybe I shouldn’t use that term.”
After two months of distributing items at no charge, Second Chance was again a shop and soon was making generous financial donations to Habitat for Humanity, Bluebonnet Trails Mental Health Center, and indigent care clinics and food pantries in La Grange and nearby Schulenburg.
The store is now open two days a week and is in a significantly smaller space. But it's making record profits that all go back into the community.
“We’re currently taking in about $50,000 a month, said Linda Streicher, treasurer for Second Chance. "We’re doing more than we did in our old building in about a third of the space.”
In 2018, St. James and Second Chance entered EHF's Holy Currencies Ministry Incubator to explore next steps. They formed a leadership team and expressed in their project mission statement that The Second Chance Emporium will become “an economic engine for La Grange and Fayette County.” The team full participated in the six-month incubator process.
“Because of Holy Currencies we can look at Second Chance as more than just a resale store," said Gayle Schielack, shop director and team member. "We really hope we can implement some of our ideas, if not all of them. We’re excited about the possibilities, especially being more partnered with the nonprofits that we support rather than just saying here's your check.”
“The wonderful thing about Holy Currencies is that it’s gotten us thinking as a community about how and in what other ways can we be of service to the community," Rev. Hungerford said. "We're not just this transactional thing where people come and they buy goods and they take their goods home and we use their money to give to charities. We're thinking about in what ways can we begin to reach out to the community and really start trying to interface with schools, trying to have deeper interaction with people beyond just coming into the thrift store. But I think one of the things that has been really nice is that we had all these conversations that have really planted some amazing seeds, which I think will begin to grow once we get into the new space and we really start seeing how things work.”
Before the end of the year, Second Chance will be in a new building currently under construction next door to their temporary location. The City of La Grange sold them the land at a reduced rate and cleared an old structure at no charge. After the move, the Amen Food Pantry will relocate to their warehouse they’ve generously shared with Second Chance.
The two neighbors will create a greatly improved resource hub for Fayette County. Rev. Hungerford knows co-locating with the food panty will ripen opportunities.
“We have in mind the building of a community garden that would help supply food to the food pantry and we have in mind reaching out to the food pantry board to develop together synergies and solutions in a way that we really haven't before," he said. "We've been sort of their patron you might say, going forward we really want to see them as a partner in ministry and a partner in tackling the kind of systemic issues that exist here in La Grange, which means really trying to tackle the problem of poverty and tackling questions like how do we do that in a rural context? We will be asking these questions together. I think it's going to be critical in moving forward.”
The new space for Second Chance will be significantly larger and the team looks to expand beyond being a thrift shop for La Grange.
“It’s our chance to do it right, to build a building the way we really want it, the way that works the best for us and our operation," Streicher said. "I mean we were making do over there in our old building that flooded, but we were out of space and we had no more options over there. When that flood hit we were devastated, but the next morning we were thinking, God gave us a second chance. So, we get to do it all over again.”
Long-time volunteer and now Assistant Shop Director, Ed Lukasik is familiar and hopeful for the expanding role of the shop in the community.
“Second Chance is really unique in being a nonprofit itself, supporting itself plus supporting other nonprofits in the county," Lukasik said. "I mean, it's just kind of a unique set up -- the people that we employ, the shoppers who come here to buy things that they might not otherwise be able to afford and can get some really nice things at some really good prices and then, the giving back to the other nonprofits. There’s just so many pluses to Second Chance, you can't list them all.”
"It's an experience that a lot of people just really enjoy." Schielack adds. "The staff enjoy it and all the volunteers enjoy it just as much as the shoppers do. It's a good gathering place for all people.
You can follow the work of The Second Chance Emporium on Facebook.