Fellowship's local partner, ThriftSmart, just celebrated its 13th anniversary as a ministry in Nashville. Dick Gygi, ThriftSmart founder and member at Fellowship, shares his thoughts below on the ministry journey of ThriftSmart these past 13 years.
How did ThriftSmart get started? What prompted it?
I was traveling in Malawi with African Leadership, one of our charity partners, having a food distribution in a rural village and distributing treadle pump irrigation systems to farmers in a time of famine.
We had an extra day to kill, so we went to a large prison in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. The prison was a desperate place with 1600 men inmates, and about 800 women. A high wire fence surrounded the perimeter of the prison yard, and women and children, families of the inmates gathered around the outside of the fence for food, but there was none. In fact the prisoners and the families were all starving due to the lack of food in the famine.
The prison was surrounded by hundreds of acres of idle land, there was a well in the center of the prison yard. There was also a concrete block building near the center of the prison yard. When we entered the building, my eyes and nose burned with the pungent smell of urine and excrement. We were informed the building was the cell block where the men were layered on top of each other from the floor to the ceiling each night and locked in until morning. It was the most disgusting thing I had ever seen.
The next day, while preparing for the day delivering treadle pumps to the farmers, I was lost in the memory of the smells of the cell block. I suggested to the men that we should make a proposal to deliver the irrigation systems into the prison and train the inmates to run a farm system. They had water, land and labor to complete the task and deliver food and a revenue stream to the prison and, feed the prisoners and their families who were all dying.
The wardens accepted the plan and we needed $30,000 to get started. I offered $10,000 and it was immediately matched by African Leadership, the ministry we were traveling with. I returned to Franklin and my church added the last $10,000. Within months, the inmates were trained to work the farm, the land was tilled and hundreds of acres of corn, lettuce and cabbage were planted along with hundreds of fruit trees.
The prison was transformed with an economic engine to grow food and sustain the inmates and their families. The last $10,000 commitment was used to purchase a milling machine and the inmates milled grain for outside commercial enterprises and created a revenue stream to build a new residence hall for the inmates. The prison was transformed and the farm still operates today.
This was my first experience with a social enterprise that would transform the social mission, and create an economic engine to sustain the mission. When I returned to Nashville, I realized there was poverty in Nashville and launched ThriftSmart to create jobs, serve marginalized families in south Nashville, and give all the profit to four charities that I cared about.
How has ThriftSmart grown over the past 13 years?
Growth has been measured by our social mission and financial returns. We have created more than 400 jobs employing people from the neighborhood and more than 20 ethnic groups in Nashville’s largest refugee and immigrant community.
We have served over one million customers with an affordable shopping experience, and given more than $750,000 in grants to the four charities (New Hope Academy, Mercy Community Healthcare, African Leadership, and the Belize project) on total revenue of more than $15 million.
We have trained more than 250 refugee women to sew and graduated them with a sewing machine through Sew For Hope, conducted Jobs For Life Classes and served more than 8,000 refugees and immigrants with ESL classes over 10 years.
Collections of more than 50,000 pounds of clothing sold and recycled through our stores monthly has reduced the landfill glut from the fast fashion apparel market in Nashville. We are doing our part for the environment.
We have also grown a strong management team as the ThritftSmart leaders have grown. I would recognize Bruce Krapf as he has grown into a very mature Operations Manager, along with Martha, Rhonda and Marie. We have grown an excellent team who know the Thrift business.
How has Nashville changed over the past 13 years?
When we moved into the south Nashville neighborhood on Nolensville Road in 2005, the neighborhood was primarily African American in ethnicity. As a staff at ThriftSmart, we prayed for a global reach with African Leadership and the Belize Project. We dreamed of reaching the world with the love of Christ.
Since then, World Relief moved their Nashville headquarters into the neighborhood and approximately 4,000 refugees from more than 20 ethnicities moved into the neighborhood nearly every year, until today, 53% of the zip code is Latino, and there are more than 25 languages in the Tusculum Elementary School across the street. Today we reach the world ever day as God has brought the international community to our doorstep.
What makes the Nashville community so great?
Nashville has become known as the “It City” because of its growth, quality of life, and positive attitude. The 500 year flood that devastated many neighborhoods in the Nashville community in 2010 brought the city together as volunteerism exploded under the slogan, “We Are Nashville.” ThriftSmart experienced a 50% increase in sales during the months following the flood as we gave more than $7,000 in gift cards to assist flood victims.
Nashville has grown in diversity and churches and the non-profit community have responded, since as partners with donations and volunteer labor.
What are the values ThriftSmart is built on?
Our core values from the beginning have been to 1) create jobs, 2) serve marginalized families, and give all the profit to the four charity partners.
ThriftSmart exists to provide value to customers, opportunity for employees, and benefit to charities by operating the best thrift stores in the world and promoting thrifty living – all for God’s glory.
To learn more about ThriftSmart and how to get involved, contact Dick Gygi ( )