* This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer.
Tender Hearts started off with a small, black box and a big idea. Ainslee House, executive director of the Tender Hearts Outreach and Thrift Store in York, had wanted to open a shelter for abused and neglected teenage girls. “We wanted to open a girl’s home, a place where they could be helped with their mental and physical scars,” House said. “But it just wasn’t something we could do right then. So we got the idea of starting a women’s shelter.” A year ago, House opened a thrift store on Madison Street to help raise money for the shelter. The outreach ministry and thrift store moved in July to Kings Mountain Street, and it has been a huge success. House's black box of index cards, which held information on each person who received assistance, has grown into two thick notebooks. “We’re going modern next,” House said. Her uncle wrote a computer program to store the ministry’s burgeoning database. House’s goal is to open the Tender Hearts House of Hope, a shelter for single women and women with children. The idea is modeled on the Durham Rescue Mission in Durham, N.C. House and her assistant director, Barbara Dunn, visited the mission and spent the night at its Good Samaritan Inn. “Their rooms are like staying in a hotel,” House said. “They do such a great job helping people.” House of Hope would be a welfare-to-work situation, with women staying no more than 90 days. The women would be referred by the Department of Social Services or private placement, House said. Ideally, when a woman left, she would have found a job and a place to live. “We would do a couple of weeks with them working in the store, then help them with job training,” House said. “There’s a program to get your GED . . . someone has computers to donate to us, so the women could learn computer skills.” * * * While working toward opening the House of Hope, the Tender Hearts’ outreach continues to grow – and grow. “Last year we served more than 1,008 individuals,” House said. Each person who qualifies for assistance receives two complete outfits, a pair of shoes and a bag of groceries. Assistance is given for six months. “We have 52 regular volunteers,” House said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be in existence. They are the backbone of this ministry.” Volunteers usually work at least four hours a month, but “if you don’t have time to volunteer, come shop!” House said. Tender Hearts also has helped local fire victims, most of whom had no insurance, House said. Last year they helped four families; this year they’ve already helped two. When a family loses its home, “we give them everything they need to get set up again,” House said. “Beds, curtains, plates, whatever, for free.” At Christmas, Tender Hearts gave out 556 meals (bread, canned goods and a frozen turkey), helped by a $2,500 grant from Food Lion. Children received wrapped toys. Several local churches held drives and filled the pantry’s black-wire shelves with everything from cans of green beans to diapers to bags of rice. “The feeling that you get when you help someone who is in pure need . . . you can’t describe it,” House said. “You get the sense you’ve made a difference.” Curves, a women’s fitness center in York, holds monthly drives to collect personal goods (toothpaste, shampoo, toilet paper) for Tender Hearts to give away. The fitness center also is helping raise money for the House of Hope. “It’s such a blessing to have businesses support you,” House said. * * * The thrift store is well organized, and you can’t beat the prices. All clothing is $2. Books are generally 25 cents. Stepping into the full-to-the-brim warehouse, you can spot tennis racquets, a fake fireplace, a blue-sequined evening gown, Halloween decorations, wooden doors, even a padlocked sea chest for sale. “We started last year with 460 square feet in a small shop on Madison Street. Then we moved in July and now we have 10,500 square feet,” House said, laughing. Tender Hearts is applying for a grant to buy the building. “The biggest thing we hear from people donating is ‘You helped my sister’ or ‘You helped out my aunt.’ We helped someone they know, and now they want to give back,” House said.