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Inside Look: How Niverville MCC Has Coped with Pandemic

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Niverville MCC Thrift Shop volunteer Olasunkanmi Dickson-Isu and day manager Debbie Sandland are hard at work on a Thursday morning. Dave Baxter

The last year has been one of challenges and tragedy at the Niverville MCC Thrift Shop, but the volunteers and employees who keep the store running say they are adjusting to this new normal and doing everything they can to keep their employees and customers safe.

“We’ve had to take a lot of extra steps to keep everything running and we’ve dealt with things I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” Niverville MCC general manager Gerald Loeppky says.

It was more than a year ago, in March 2020, that the world seemed to stand still and the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Very quickly, businesses across the country and here in Manitoba began to shut down.

The effects were felt immediately at Niverville MCC, a not-for-profit that has run in the community for more than 45 years and contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to development and peace projects run by the Mennonite Central Committee.

“We were operating normally last March, just like everyone else, and then the word from the government came to shut down business and we were given a date,” Loeppky says.

Although the store was given a few days before they had to shut down last spring, Loeppky said they decided to take no chances and shut the doors immediately.

“With this store, 90 percent of the people working here are volunteers, and most of them are seniors over the age of 70, so because of the risks we just took the step to shut the whole thing down,” he says. “We didn’t know much about this virus at first, and we weren’t going to take any chances.”

Since March 2020, the store has been forced to close its doors twice. They shut down for eight weeks in the spring and another eight weeks in the fall, leading to tens of thousands of dollars lost in 2020.

“We typically contribute more than $250,000 per year, but in total we were closed 16 weeks of 2020 so we lost about $80,000 from what we would normally bring in,” Loeppky says.

And while the organization suffered financial losses, they also dealt with the tragic loss of one of their own as last fall. An MCC employee tested positive for COVID-19, and not long after that diagnosis lost their battle with the virus.

“That was just a total shock for everyone and really left us wondering what we were going to do and if we should even be open,” Loeppky says. “That hit everyone really hard.”

After the positive case came to light, the store was also forced to quarantine six of their volunteers for two weeks.

While the pandemic has caused hardship for those who run the store, Loeppky says he also believes that closing down the shop has been a major hit to the residents of Niverville and has shown just how important the shop really is to the town.

“We have a lot of customers that rely very much on this store,” he says. “There are so many customers that just don’t have the means to shop at the retail stores. This is where they do their shopping because they are not in a position to buy stuff at retail price. That’s just a reality for a lot of families.”

Loeppky adds that they could see just how important the shop is to the community by the way customers came back in droves both times they reopened.

“When we opened back up, we had lineups down the sidewalk,” he says. “We opened at 10:00 and people were already lining up at 9:00. And by 9:30, I could not see the end of the line.”

That steady stream of customers led to some of the most profitable days the store has ever seen, even shattering a record for single-day sales.

“Our best day before COVID, we brought in about $4,000. But our best day after the shutdown was in December of last year, and that day we brought in $7,400 in sales,” Loeppky says. “We almost doubled our best day ever, and when we have opened back up we have really brought in more dollars per week than we have ever seen before.”

But with the steady stream of customers came a whole new set of challenges. For example, they’ve only been able to operate at 25 percent capacity and have had to find ways to keep the store safe.

“There’s really been no rulebook for this,” Loeppky says. “When you get new information you have to readjust, so for us if we open today this is what it looks like. But if we get more info tomorrow, then things can change. That picture is constantly changing.”

Some of the changes the store has been forced to make include installing plexiglass shields for the cashiers, creating strict social distancing guidelines, monitoring how many customers can be in the store at one time, and having customers bag their own items.

While Loeppky says he appreciates the importance of the shop for its customers and for the money it raises, he also knows how important it is for the volunteers who give their time there.

“It’s keeping them active both mentally and physically, and that’s such a huge benefit for seniors because it’s keeping them healthy,” he says.

As volunteers and employees at MCC Niverville continue to move forward while doing what they can to stay safe, Loeppky hopes that with vaccines being administered in the province they can get back to normal sometime in the near future, and bring in the kind of dollars they typically bring in for the Mennonite Central Committee.

“The hope for 2021 and going into 2022 is that we get back on track fiscally,” he says. “A year from now if we keep seeing people getting vaccinated, we really hope we can get back to normal. There will be a lot of work to do to get there, but it’s something we know we can accomplish.”

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