At the end of July 1977, Kaethe Warkentin didn’t need a calculator to add up her first month’s profit — just 26 cents remained in the muffin tin she was using as a cash register. But the few coins that remained would not be lonely for long.
By the end of that year, the Hillsboro Et Cetera Shop in Kansas would be sending $2,800 every month — nearly $14,000 in 2022 dollars — to fund Mennonite Central Committee’s relief, development and peace work around the world.
The Hillsboro store’s origin is one of the stories MCC Thrift is celebrating during its 50th anniversary year. The first MCC Thrift store was established in Altona, Man., in 1972, to sell secondhand clothing.
It didn’t take long for the concept to spread. Almost 50 years later, MCC Thrift shops in Canada and the U.S. raised $15.7 million during the 2021-22 fiscal year.
Warkentin’s motivation to start a thrift shop grew out of her experience as a girl in the 1920s. Famine and political upheavals caused deadly food shortages for Mennonites in southern Russia (present-day Ukraine).
Warkentin remembered her grandfather mixing ground-up bark and thistles with the small amounts of rye and wheat he’d hidden away for his family’s survival. She never forgot it was MCC that arrived with bread and soup for her starving family and neighbors.
She survived those hardships in Russia, fleeing the country in 1943, eventually settling in Paraguay. By 1949, she put down roots in Hillsboro, the hometown of her new husband, whom she met in a Mennonite colony in Paraguay.
A natural with languages, by 1960 she was teaching German, Russian and Spanish at Tabor College in Hillsboro, putting to work the three master’s degrees she’d amassed. But it was when she retired from teaching in 1977 that her relationship to MCC reconnected.
Warkentin started collecting donations of clothing, hoping to offer a thrifty alternative to buying new clothes while raising money to fund the organization that had saved her family decades ago. With the support of other Mennonites in the area, she opened the store in July 1977, operating out of the only available real estate in town, the front room of a bowling alley.
After just two months the shop moved to a larger building, where Warkentin managed the store for one more year. In 1997, the shop’s success led it to expand and move again to where it stands today in the heart of Hillsboro.
Since its founding, the Hillsboro Et Cetera Shop has supported MCC to the tune of $1.4 million.
Warkentin died in 2007 at the age of 91. Memories of her live on through her family, including granddaughter Abigail Welborn, who heard stories of her grandmother’s life in Ukraine.
Welborn remembers hearing that her grandmother would use soup can labels for paper when she was teaching.
“She was thrifty. She’d use the back of everything,” Welborn said. “She was just appalled by the waste in America. She never wasted anything.”
Jason Dueck is a communications specialist for MCC Canada in Winnipeg, Man.
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