GENEVA — The Center of Concern’s Thrift Store is more than just a place for people to find quality clothes, bedding and housewares. The sales of those items are a major source of funding for an agency whose charge is to help feed those in need in the Geneva community.

“All sales here fund our food,” said Center of Concern Director Cheryl Toor. “We are completely privately funded.”

According to a booklet documenting the Center of Concern’s history, the thrift store’s beginnings date back to 1971. Back then, St. Stephen’s Church’s Operation Merry Christmas program distributed food and gifts to needy families around the holiday

However, while they were handing out those things, volunteers saw the living conditions of those on the receiving end — and it was unsettling.

The group decided a broader effort was needed. Operation Merry Christmas volunteers reached out to other members of the faith community in an effort to serve the poor and down-and-out throughout the year, not just at holiday time.

The Center of Concern was born, with its first location at 30 Lewis St. It was determined a secondhand clothing store would fund the effort.

A 1991 fire destroyed the Lewis Street site. The Center for Concern regrouped in temporary quarters before settling later that year into their current building at 58 Avenue D, part of the old American Can complex that also includes the city’s Geneva Enterprise Development Center.

Toor said the need for Center of Concern services relates somewhat to the state of the economy, but there continues to a large number of people in Geneva in need of food and other assistance. Some are people who have lost jobs and are seeking help for the first time, she said. Others are challenged to stretch food dollars they receive through government programs.

“We try to fill the need with what we have,” said Toor, who came to the center 17 years ago after a career in human resources work.

Toor said she works with government and private agencies to help those in need find assistance beyond what the Center of Concern can offer.

“We do whatever we can to get the needs met,” she said.

Besides food, the Center of Concern allows families in emergency situations — such as those who have lost most of their things in fires — access to all the thrift store has, and at no cost.

Toor, who is full-time, is just one of two employees to be paid at the center. The other is Assistant Director Linda Geoia.

“I could do other things. I don’t want to,” Toor said. “My heart is here. I’ve grown up with these people. They’re fun. We laugh together. We cry together. And, we get a lot of work done.”

Toor said it would be difficult to operate the thrift store with a paid staff, pointing to the loss of many similar operations in the area, including Salvation Army-run outfits in Canandaigua and Newark; the latter the is closing in December. Places like the Salvation Army use paid staff, Toor noted, which increases overhead significantly in a business where profit margins are thin.

Toor said more than 50 people pitch in with regular shifts to run the thrift shop — it’s open Monday to Saturday — as well as the pantry.

“They do everything,” Toor said. “My volunteers are the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Some of them have been here since I started.”

She said volunteers come with a can-do, pitch-in spirit that cannot be matched.

“They’re here because of their heart,” she said, adding that a number of community groups also do volunteer projects at the site, including the Geneva Rotary’s high school Interact Club, as well as students from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

The Thrift Store, which includes the Shirley Center, where some of the finer housewares are located, generates about $45,000 to $50,000 annually, Toor said. The agency also receives donations from a number of Geneva businesses and service organizations.

Regular customers include people of all income levels, Toor pointed out, and that’s because the donated clothing and housewares on the shelves and racks are a cut above your average thrift store.

“It’s quality merchandise at a super-low price,” she said. “We do not keep broken items. We do not put chipped dishes on the shelves.”

Toor noted a saying used around the thrift store: “Everything you buy, we turn into food.”

The Center of Concern has spent the last three years doing building improvements, installing a new furnace with updated air-conditioning, and having roof work done “because we were tired of wearing raincoats,” Toor said.

The Geneva Rotary pitched in for a new, large-chest freezer and helped pay for a kitchen in the pantry, which features both dry and fresh foods.

The Center of Concern hasn’t forgotten its roots, Toor noted.

It continues to serve families at Christmas through its Operation Merry Christmas effort, which provides holiday meals for families in need and gifts for their children by way of a special holiday store at the nearby GEDC. Signups are Nov. 28-30 and Dec. 3-11, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each of those days. Call the center at (315) 789-1117 for more information.

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