The White Elephant Shop. (KCAW/photo by Greta Mart)

The White Elephant Shop. (KCAW/photo by Greta Mart)

There are now a handful of thrift shops and consignment stores in Sitka, but for decades there was only one: The White Elephant. In business for over 50 years, the White E — as locals call it — has contributed millions of dollars to support nonprofits, and to assist individuals in need of a helping hand. Until recently, the organization was run exclusively by volunteers.

“Peg, they got bowls and stuff over here.”
“Oui, oui, tres chic!”

“I was born and raised here and I come here everyday, everyday they are open because if you don’t you miss on the special, if you come all the time you find the treasures. And I’ve found lots of treasures.”

“We love Sitka first off and we love the White E. Now my daughter is starting a new tradition, I bring my her here everytime we come to Sitka for the summer.”

“The locals said you gotta come by this thrift store. Now every summer I pack lighter and get my warmer clothes here. Oooh, actually this summer I got a really, really nice heavy jacket for $8, and that I’m pretty excited about. I’m loving it, I’m riding high…but yeah, I’ve been talking it up.”

These are White Elephant shoppers Al Kashok, Doug Horton and Rob Kron.

The White E was created in 1952 as a way for the local Easter Seals Society, and what was then knowns as A.C.C.A. – Alaska Crippled Children and Adults – to earn money for their charitable work.

For the first 15 years, the shop moved from space to borrowed space. Then in 1967, White Elephant volunteers set up at the current location, across from the Westmark Sitka, leasing the land from the city of Sitka for one dollar a year and eventually buying the building with donated money and shop revenues.

It’s really an interesting organization, and the fact that it survived all those years with not a lot of infrastructure is really a testimony to the efforts of the volunteer groups,” said Cheri Hample, a White E volunteer and a health and human services consultant.

Last fall, the group of volunteers who serve as the White Elephant’s Board asked Hample to do a professional assessment of the organization. She performed literally every job in the store, and then read up on the White E’s founders, like Mary Sarvela:

“She went to visit people in the nursing home until she ended up there herself (laughs), she was just an amazing woman, and I think she depicts the kind of women that really kept this place going all these years. Just passionate about Sitka and helping people,” Hample said.

In 1992 the White E split off from the statewide Easter Seals organization and incorporated as a nonprofit. That year, the Board granted just under $16,000 to other local nonprofits. Since then, the Sitka White Elephant Shop Inc. has given away a staggering $1.2 million dollars — all earned through sales of second-hand goods, a dollar here, fifty cents there.

“The White Elephant’s annual support makes continuing our service of home delivered and congregate meals here at the center possible,” said Swan Lake Senior Center Site Manager Sandy Koval.

The White E contributed $15,000 to the Swan Lake Senior Center’ food budget this year alone. Koval said this week that she uses the money to buy the ingredients for meals served to Sitka’s senior citizens, over 12,000 of them in 2013.

“Without their support it would be much more difficult – if possible – for us to continue to offer the nutritious daily hot meals that we’re able to provide here at the center,” said Koval.

In all, the White E has given away $84,000 this year to 25 nonprofits, for causes ranging from books for first-grade classrooms, toiletry supplies for the domestic violence shelter, to a graduation dinner for men completing an alcohol treatment program.

But in the past few years, the White E has reached a crossroads. The core group of volunteers is retiring, moving on — or passing on. The board is thinking about succession, and keeping the White E viable during a time when many younger volunteers are stretched thin.

On Hample’s recommendation, the White E board hired a director.

“Having your first ever paid position, staff position, is a huge change for a volunteer organization,” said Karen Martinsen, a long-time Sitka resident, who was hired in June. Martinsen’s main tasks will be organizing the White E’s financial records, which are currently filed in plastic baggies, inventory management, and bringing order to the organization’s haphazard-yet-successful business model.

There’s also competition — a new landscape of thrift stores in Sitka. And there’s trash. Hample says that the White E pays $6000 a year to haul away things that can’t be sold.

“People literally use us as a dumping ground for their stuff…we are burdened then with taken precious volunteer time trying to dispose of them,” said Hample.

Establishing firm new rules about acceptable donations is one area where a staff director can help. Martinsen will have a big job, of course, but Hample says there are no small jobs at the White E.

“The amount of work it takes to do what we do at the White Elephant Shop is tremendous.”

Despite a change in management, there will always be volunteers spending countless hours sorting donations, hanging merchandise, answering questions and chatting with customers. Customers like Gerty Cheyenne. We asked her when it was she first started shopping at the White E.

“A long time ago, long time ago. Many years, to clothe all the children. I used to work here and they really help a lot of people,” said Cheyenne.

(loudspeaker announcement) Thank you for shopping at the White Elephant and have a wonderful day.

The White E doesn’t have a website yet, but you can like their Facebook page, “Sitka White Elephant Shop” to get updates and information.