MOUNT PLEASANT — The East Cooper Habitat for Humanity has built a reputation for helping clients get out of houses plagued by mold, cold running water and leaking roofs, and move into brand new homes at affordable prices.
To help fund that mission, the Christian housing ministry has a ReStore — a thrift shop that sells furniture and other items at discounted prices — whose homepage states all proceeds go towards building new homes.
But that's not the case; the store actually does much more.
The revenue from the used homegoods shop at 469 Long Point Road is split 50-50 between East Cooper Habitat and Seacoast Church.
While half of the funds have helped Habitat create affordable comfortable homes, the other half has fueled Seacoast's mission efforts in Mount Pleasant, including car care for single moms, foster care, health clinics, a prison ministry and more.
Some have questioned why the relationship between the two entities isn't more widely publicized, making it clearer to those who shop at or donate to the ReStore. Others have applauded the effort, saying it promotes good deeds that extend beyond housing construction.
A bit of history
Seacoast, a Mount Pleasant-based megachurch that has more than a dozen campuses across the tri-county area, was approached 15 years ago by a woman who owned a struggling thrift shop off Mathis Ferry Road.
She asked church leaders if they'd consider cleaning it up and taking over its operation.
Jodi McCall, the church's pastor of missions, reached out to community groups to gauge whether operating it made sense.
They ultimately decided against it, but it got McCall and Habitat leaders' wheels turning, as several Habitat chapters across the country had opened their own retail shops to help with fundraising.
"[East Cooper Habitat for Humanity] received a copy of the email and reached out to me to say they had been considering opening a thrift store but did not have the resources in either money or personnel to pull it off," McCall said. "They asked if we would consider Habitat and Seacoast working together to create and operate a local thrift store."
“It made me start thinking, what if we did do something that generated some additional income that allowed us to do more. ... We started researching 'how do thrift stores work.' ... We believed that from looking into other thrift stores, that they were profitable."
The church and East Cooper Habitat split the initial investment to open the thrift shop. Volunteers from both entities helped construct and operate their original store which opened in 2005 off Ben Sawyer Boulevard.
It was established as a separate 501(c)(3) non-profit and named it the East Cooper Habitat for Humanity Home Store — overseen by a three-member board of representatives from the church and Habitat.
It became a place where shoppers could find unique lamps, paintings and furniture.
Habitat would use its share of the proceeds to build houses, while Seacoast would use its share to fund local mission work.
"The goal was to provide more funding for habitat homes as well as for us to do more in the local community," McCall said.
'We want to be upfront'
While many Habitat-affiliated thrift shops existed around 2005, it wasn't until years after the East Cooper thrift shop opened that the national Habitat organization rolled out its "ReStore" model and brand.
The local Mount Pleasant nonprofit decided to embrace the ReStore brand, using it to replace their "Home Store" name.
Leaders said adopting the national branding meant the store could use graphics the national organization supplied.
For example, one graphic on the local store's website outlines how money from a sofa sale will be used to build a home.
A separate section on the site, however, does indicate that proceeds are used for houses and local missions. An FAQ section on the ReStore's site also indicates that Seacoast and Habitat own the store.
Customers said the relationship between the two entities isn't well known, and shoppers at the thrift shop last week acknowledged they were unaware Seacoast received store proceeds.
Jim Luse, a former Habitat volunteer, said most who shop there fall in that category.
“I think anyone shopping at Habitat ... they’ll say OK, I’m patronizing this operation and I’m donating to this operation because I feel like its going to benefit people who don’t have homes," Luse said. “It’s an important distinction that I think the public ought to be aware of.”
Habitat and Seacoast leaders acknowledged the confusion.
"It was never something we were trying to hide," McCall said. "But we were also trying to honor the (Habitat ReStore) brand."
Leaders said the board decided some months ago it's time to better highlight the shared relationship. They've worked with consultants to create a new name and logo that highlights the partnership between Seacoast and Habitat and how the store's funds go toward several purposes.
“We want to be upfront," said Bob Hervey, executive director for East Cooper Habitat. "We want people to know what’s going on. We’re trying to be forthright and open. Its been on the website. We’re not trying to hide anything.”
Local leaders said as far as they know, the Mount Pleasant ReStore is the only such store in the country that operates as a partnership between Habitat and another organization.
"We are a unique ReStore," Hervey said.
The model has paid off for both entities. In 2016, for example, Habitat and Seacoast received $221,000 for their work.
For East Cooper Habitat, that meant more shelter for those in need, particularly in a community where affordable housing has become a growing challenge, if not an outright oxymoron.
Since 1990, Habitat has constructed 74 homes throughout Mount Pleasant, Awendaw and McClellanville. Many of them house families that had lived in deteriorating homes that lacked hot water.
For Seacoast, ReStore funds have supported the church's Dream Center, which serves low-income, homeless and under-served individuals and families.
The thrift store proceeds also have helped the church fund foster care support, a prison ministry and car care initiative for single moms.
MaryChris Delcioppo, a single mother who lives in Mount Pleasant, has been helped by the car care ministry. She has taken her vehicle there to get oil changes. While the $70 she has saved might seem marginal to some, it was significant to her as she lived on a teacher's salary.
"For somebody to take care of that for me, that made a huge difference in my budget," she said.
McCall said Seacoast still would do local mission work without the ReStore, "but are we allowed to do more because of it? Yeah.”