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  • Writer's pictureNoemi

5 Amazing Advantages of Charity Shops: My Experience as a Volunteer

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

I entered the shop in a cold and rainy day in January. I got close to the till and bashfully asked if they were looking for volunteers. This is how my experience at the charity shop Cancer Research UK began, where I have volunteered for three months every Saturday afternoon.

Hold on, what are charity shops?

Unknown in many countries (including Italy), charity shops are extremely popular in the UK and Ireland. It works like this: you can donate a wide variety of items; volunteers sort donations, set up the shop and sell everything; the proceeds go to the association that owns the shop. For example, Cancer Research UK fundraises scientific research to find new cures for cancer. To sum up, it’s like a thrift store with a charitable goal.

Charity shops are brilliant for several reasons. From an ecological standpoint, buying second hand is the most sustainable practice because items in great conditions are spared from the landfill and you do not increase the demand for new goods. Moreover, while I was helping at Cancer Research UK, I found out many hidden beneficial aspects that have a great impact on society. Volunteers are often retired men and women who gain a new sense of belonging to society through this activity, and they can also establish meaningful relationships among them, thus fighting isolation and loneliness. On the other hand, young volunteers can have a first work experience to enrich their CV. Finally, thanks to the very low prices, the items are extremely affordable. But don’t imagine a shop full of knick-knacks: charity shops are usually well-tended, stocked and attended by customers from different social classes.

Since I was fascinated by its ethos, I wanted to explore this world by offering my contribution. I had never worked in a shop before, and I learnt a lot supported by the lovely volunteers who welcomed me in the team.

Every Saturday was different. My manager, the only employee, whose tireless work meant business was booming, never let me get bored. Among various tasks, my favourite one was sorting donations. My smiling colleague, a retired nurse, and I opened the donation bags and emptied them on the big table. Then, with the gloves on, we evaluated the clothes (are they good enough to be sold?) and hanged them on the coat ranks, with the size number and price tag attached. I know that it might sound repetitive, but the fun part was to imagine who had just donated those clothes. Indeed, donations said much more about them than you might think: this woman undertook a serious fitness journey by dieting and going to the gym, and now all these tracksuits are too big for her; this girl was crazy about mini-skirts and tops; this coat has never been used (the price tag is still there!), it must have been an unappreciated gift; this child was crazy about pink (or maybe her mum was); and so on.

Tips for buying

Not only clothes, but also novels, kitchenware, stationery, etc. In other words, charity shops offer a wide range of possibilities, thus becoming a must for penniless students like me (and many others). As for thrift stores, a small trick is going to charity shops in the city centre or located in the well-off neighbourhoods, where you can generally find high-quality pieces more easily. Trust me, as a volunteer I’ve seen many branded pieces of clothing with the price tag still attached. Charity shops near universities are also a good shout: in Lancaster (UK) there’s one on campus where students donate and mostly buy clothes, books, and houseware. All charity shops keep their prices extremely low, but of course there may be differences depending on the area and the association. To give you an idea, at Cancer Research UK clothes were sold for 3 pounds maximum, while books, CDs and DVD were even cheaper. You’ll notice that some items, such as socks and umbrellas, are not second-hand. These can be either store surpluses or gadgets that the association produces.

Pro Tip: if you go to a charity shop immediately after Christmas Eve, you’ll notice that numerous brand-new clothes, board games, electronic devices magically appear…

Tips for donating

The list of charity shop in the UK and Ireland is endless, so you are spoilt for choice. I’ll mention below the ones I know of and I’ll briefly state their goal:

Oxfam – Oxfam’s vision is a world without poverty. To achieve this goal, they work towards ensuring human rights, gender equality, sustainable development, zero hunger and free basic health care and education.

Cancer Research UK – Cancer Research UK is a charity that focuses on funding scientific research to help prevent, diagnose, and treat all kinds of cancer. The charity aims to optimise existing cures and research new treatments to increase the chances of winning this illness.

St John’s Hospice Shop – It’s a charity in Lancashire that offers free palliative care to patients with life shortening conditions.

British Heart Foundation – It raises funds for research into heart and circulatory diseases.

International Aid Trust - Born in 1991, International Aid Trust is a charity that supports people in need throughout its network of churches in the UK and abroad.

RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) – Funded in 1824, RSPCA was the world’s first animal welfare charity.

The Samaritans – This charity is dedicated to preventing suicide by offering psychological support 24/7 via phone, SMS, email or face-to-face.

Barnardo’s Shop – Funded in 1867 by Thomas Barnardo to improve the critical living conditions of English children, the charity helps children, teenagers and parents in the UK.

Salvation Army – Since 1865 The Salvation Army promotes Christian values and social justice in the world.

Defying Dementia – Its goal is to raise awareness and funds for research into Alzheimer and neurodegenerative brain disease.

The Children’s Society – It’s a national charity that looks after the most vulnerable children and young people in the UK.

Obviously, your donations will be welcomed anywhere, and you can choose where to go depending on your values and beliefs. If you don’t have preferences, I would suggest opting for shops that appear “empty”. Some charity shops are packed, while others have to display a poster stating, “Donations needed” periodically.

In case you are still wondering what you can donate, I'll leave a list for you down below! If you are still in doubt, please don't be afraid to ask volunteers. I'm sure they would be delighted to help you!

I hope this post was useful to whoever didn’t know about this amazing reality, and that it encouraged others to enjoy their local charity shop even more!

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