HAWKINS — Wood County Pastor Jeff Karlson spends part of his work week helping shuffle furniture, distribute food and tote bags of donated clothing.
His sweaty pastime of helping run a treasure-filled thrift shop and busy food pantry is not a high paying gig, but he and the dozens of others who volunteer time for Hawkins Helping Hand say the benefits are priceless.
“This is just a part of me,” he said. “I feel that God drew me here. What I like best about this place is that everyone comes together and we all work for the community. People always seem surprised that for such a small town, we are able to have something like this.”
Karlson, as Helping Hand director, said he views the charitable organization as special because volunteers check their political, religious, economic and social differences at the door to come together for a common purpose: helping others.
“We help people in the Hawkins area, but we do get calls from the Tyler area as well,” said Karlson, who pastors Whispering Pines Church of the Nazarene at Lake Hawkins. “We have over 50 volunteers working here on a regular basis. Most are retired or nearly retired.”
Hawkins Helping Hand, 320 W. Front St., started in 1987 as a project of the Hawkins Ministerial Alliance in response to the need for a centralized and coordinated assistance site.
The organization receives no government funding or grants, but does follow federal guidelines to determine eligibility. It survives through monetary support and donations to its thrift shop.
Karlson said the volunteer organization is not intended to be a long-term solution for economic hardship, but rather an emergency measure for those struggling with joblessness, illnesses and personal emergencies, such as house fires.
People qualifying for assistance can receive allocations of food, clothing and household essentials to help stabilize and recover.
Between 300 and 400 families currently are served by the group; about 100 look to the food pantry to help supplement their nutritional needs, the pastor said.
Nothing is wasted, it seems.
Donated household items are distributed to qualified individuals or sold in the thrift shop, which features bargains on electronics and medical equipment to household furnishings and clothing.
Sale proceeds are used to purchase food at a reduced cost from the East Texas Food Bank.
The organization also supports Goodwill and the Salvation Army through donations of items and participation in key regional projects, such the Army’s annual Angel Tree campaign.
The Helping Hand thrift shop, open 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Thursday, has a strong area fan base.
“We have people coming from all over to shop here, including many from Tyler,” Karlson said from an aisle filled with .25 cent paperbacks. “We’re cheaper than the dollar stores.”
Thrift shop bargain hunters Robert and Linda McWhorter, who reside at Lake Hawkins, said they never tire of combing the aisles to help support the organization.
McWhorter, found carrying a gleaming pink and white Harbor Breeze Minnie Mouse ceiling fan, said there is always something interesting to cart home.
A grinning Mrs. McWhorter agreed, saying she once donated her husband’s favorite yellow shirt and had to buy it back.
“I hated that shirt so I donated it without telling him,” she said. “One day when we were down here, he found it and said, ‘Look, I found another shirt like mine.’ I didn’t have the nerve to tell him that was his shirt. I bought it back for 50 cents. … It’s still hanging in the closet.”
Karlson said community support is the key to the organization’s success.
Longtime Helping Hand volunteers Ann Flake and Andriana “Andy” Smith, both Holly Lake Ranch residents, said they look forward each week to helping out.
“It’s a time in my life to give back,” said Ms. Flake, folding a tiny blue shirt in the children’s section. “People who work here are like my Wednesday morning family.”
Volunteers Tommie Reinhardt and Vera Maahs, both 79 and also from Holly Lake Ranch, work the adult clothing area.
“I like seeing the joy on people’s faces when they see what they can get for $1,” Ms. Reinhardt, a 16-year volunteer, said. “It’s a really fun place to shop.”
Brandon Perez, 19, a graduate of Hawkins High School, said he enjoys volunteering with lifting and sorting.
“It gives me something to do and help out people,” he said. “They help me and this is something I can do to help them.”