March 27, 2023

By Colin Burrowes/ Spoke News

It Takes A Village is not a regular thrift store, it’s a free store – it’s a community.

Walking into the store’s back room, the staging area, you smell a slight musty odour. A kitchen table and a fridge sit off to the right while to the left are about 12 bags of donations yet to be sorted or half sorted. These yet-to-be-discovered treasures will soon be put on display in the front of the store.

Seated at the table running her hand through her long dark blond hair to give it a quick fix after a long day is Andrea Hruska, warn out but happy. In addition to the time she spends at the store, she also works full time as a developmental support worker at Community Living,

Andrea Hruska does some paperwork at It Takes a Village on Oct. 8 in Listowel, Ont. No personal information is taken from customers but staff tally up the number of adults and children who use the store. Photo by Colin Burrowes / Spoke News

Despite the fact some people might accuse Hruska of spreading herself too thin between work, It Takes A Village and squeezing in some family time, Hruska is animated and upbeat as she shares her story.

Hruska grew up in a quiet rural area at the edge of Waterloo before moving to downtown Kitchener at the age of 16 during her “rocking rebellious stage.”

She went to the University of Waterloo and lived in a housing cooperative.

“It was very inclusive, very forward thinking – people really looked after each other,” said Hruska.

Everything was about people working together to make sure they had the best life possible, but when she married her second husband and moved to Listowel 20 years ago she was surprised to find a lack of resources, and a lack of what she would refer to as a sense of community.

“It just seemed like if you weren’t involved in hockey or some sort of sporting activity for your kids you weren’t in the nucleus of the community,” she said.

Hruska describes her upbringing as privileged. Her father was successfully self-employed when she was young.

“I had never been exposed or experienced anyone struggling with homelessness or poverty,” she said.

That changed when her father had financial problems, losing everything he had worked for. He ended up living on Erb Street in Waterloo in a basement apartment.

While leaving his apartment after a visit Hruska was startled by rustling under the stairs. She jumped back, thinking there were rats under there.

Instead, a woman in her late 50s dressed in a winter coat and carrying shopping bags emerged.

“I had never seen anything like that in my life. It really impacted me. I went away and thought about her so much. In my ignorance I wanted to do something to help her,” Hruska said, adding she was sure she could change the woman’s world.

Hruska got a backpack and loaded it with food, cookies, feminine hygiene products and mittens. Then she sat and waited in downtown Waterloo, hoping to see the woman again.

“I saw her coming down the street,” Hruska said. “I was so excited because I had this bag. I rushed up to her – ‘I’ve got this bag for you.’ She just took the bag put it in her cart and walked away. That was my first experience of hugely unrealistic expectations.”

Hruska realized she had thought she was changing the woman’s life and the woman would feel grateful for the effort made.

“What I learned in that moment was just how unrealistic we can be about people struggling with homelessness and poverty. How we need to see each other as human and as equal … We need to give dignity and not expect people to be grateful for every effort we make for them.”

Another life-changing experience for Hruska was marrying young and having two children, one of whom died of hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

“I couldn’t deal with that very well,” she said. “I threw a bunch of stuff in a backpack and took off. I left my daughter with my husband and went travelling through Canada and the United States – just running so far away from something inside me.”

When she returned Hruska left her first marriage, finished high school and was accepted at the University of Waterloo.

“I was impoverished,” said Hruska. “But, it was the happiest I had ever been in my life. I was finally owning my life.”

She started teaching adult literacy but was still living a modest life. One day she walked out and found a box on her porch filled with food.

“I looked at it and thought – people want to take care of me,” said Hruska. “Then I thought I want to take care of people and I was so excited.”

When she went to the adult literacy school later she spoke with one of the volunteers. The volunteer had a very different upbringing than Hruska and when she excitedly told the volunteer about the box the reply was a nonchalant, “yeah, it’s a food hamper, they give it to poor people at Christmas.”

This was devastating news to Hruska. She did not see herself as poor. In fact, she felt richer than ever.

“It’s just I did not have any money,” said Hruska. “It made me understand whether we have money or not does not determine our value … it’s only by seeing each other as equal and helping each other along the way that we’re going to have healthy communities and healthy people.”

This is a lesson Hruska took to heart and it is the basis of It Takes a Village, the store she helps run with a team of over 40 volunteers.

The store is 100 per cent donation run, everything from the rent right on down to the merchandise. It’s a similar model to most thrift stores except no money is exchanged.

“We have an emergency food pantry where you can access food,” said Hruska. “You don’t have to give any identifying information which can affect dignity.”

When customers enter the store, they are given a card with 20 points. All items in the store have a point value.

Volunteer Kelsey Schumacher restocks the give and take produce stand at It Takes a Village where customers can get free vegetables in Listowel, Ont. Photo by Colin Burrowes / Spoke News

“The whole premise is to give people a chance to take care of each other,” said Hruska. “Without bureaucracy, without anyone in a higher position taking an income. It is 100 per cent about people taking care of each other. It is a profoundly moving experience to plant a seed like It Takes a Village and watch the community take it and grow it.”

Danika Whitehead, a co-op student from Listowel District Secondary School, said she chose her placement at the thrift shop because she likes the message of It Takes A Village.

“I think they are doing a really powerful thing,” she said.

Other businesses in Listowel have been supportive of what is happening at the store.

“Corley Sports has been a big contributor to the village,” said Kelsey Schumacher, a member of the volunteer team that staffs the store. “Donating shoes before the school year started … we’ve had different companies donate binders and backpacks … so kids have new stuff going back to school.”

Beverly Eady looks through the books at It Takes a Village on Oct. 12. Photo by Colin Burrowes /Spoke News

Customers have a give and take relationship with the store. Both Shannon Miller and Beverly Eady said they love shopping there when they need to, but they also donate when they can.

“I come in once a week,” said Eady. “I always find a trinket I really love. I always get my books here.”

Craig Lawrence is the owner of the building It Takes A Village is located in. He is quite happy to help provide a home for the store.

“There are many elements to this,” said Lawrence. “First of all, rents are crazy stupid high for anyone to have a regular business, let alone a charity business.”

Lawrence has a philosophy other landlords are not as quick to follow. He chooses to charge rent significantly lower than market value allowing new businesses to survive without spending all their money on overhead.

When Hruska needed a location for It Takes A Village, Lawrence reached out to her.

He said staying below market value is working out well for him. In 2014 he bought a building in Wingham, Ont. with four storefronts. When he bought it only one store was occupied, and the owner was paying over $1,000 per month in an area where most stores were vacant. Lawrence thought that was “ludicrous” so he dropped the rents by two-thirds and signed long-term leases with store owners within a month of purchasing the building. Now all four stores are filled with thriving businesses.

“I love the business model of It Takes A Village,” said Lawrence. “I employ a lot of people who don’t get a lot of opportunities. They may not be bondable, a lot of people with backgrounds in addictions … a lot of them are not able to hold down solid, full-time or even part-time jobs. So, the way I employ them is they can jump in and out of the job – make some money and get more self-esteem and self-worth. They feel looked down upon, the invisibles of society. So, with helping those people for years, this opportunity was an extension of that. Anything I can do to help people, to give them a voice – a sense of humanity, I try to do.”

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