Each week in the blighted Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit, where 85 percent of residents live below the poverty line, 80 families shop at a free store to get life’s essentials: toiletries, diapers, and clothes. Plus, they can enjoy free prepared lunches on Saturdays.
This largesse is a direct result of the money raised by the United Methodist Women’s twice-yearly rummage sale held at their church in nearby Birmingham, Mich., run indefatigably by dedicated volunteers like Deborah Berg.
Berg, a REALTOR® who works as an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices HWWB, REALTORS®, in that same suburb of 20,000 residents, spends more than 600 hours a year, including two weeks’ vacation time, running critical aspects of the nation’s largest rummage sale in both physical size and volume of merchandise. So how big is it? About 62,000 square feet—larger than an NFL football field—packing every room of the church property with everything from clothes and furniture to bicycles and garden tools.
Besides providing the grant money that paid for a commercial fridge, freezer, and range, and seeding the free store for the Redford Brightmoor Initiative in Detroit, the rummage sale’s proceeds support some 35 charities annually. UMW is a national, faith-based membership organization focused on such mission work as raising money to aid women, children, the homeless, and the elderly in crisis. All of the sale profits go to the charities. UMW is associated locally with Birmingham First church.
In the seven years Berg has been a member of the rummage committee, “we’ve more than doubled the revenue we raise,” says Melissa Peirce, UMW president at Birmingham First church. “This year, we gave away [grants of] $190,000.”
Berg’s most important role in the sales—held for a week in June and a week in October—is to acquire and deliver big-ticket items. Furniture, antiques, and other valuable merchandise are the main reason the rummage sale’s revenue has increased. Berg works directly with donors—often seniors entering assisted living or moving in with relatives—to gratefully, graciously, and compassionately help them downsize and let go.
“She has the ability to manage people’s feelings,” says fellow volunteer Mary Jane Russell. “We don’t take desks anymore, for instance, because people don’t buy them. She has to tell seniors that, knowing that they treasure that desk” and don’t understand why it’s not wanted.
Russell says Berg will occasionally arrange to pick up items that aren’t needed. “She instinctively knows when to say, ‘We can’t take it’ and when [saying that] might crush someone. You have to honor where these people are in their life.”
Part and parcel of this job is organizing the truck pickup schedule, a task that Russell says was the bane of her existence when she used to do it years ago. “It’s a nightmare. The Johnny-come-latelys say, ‘I forgot to call, so can you get my stuff at the last minute?’ I was going to lose my mind.”
Berg rises to the challenge by mapping out the most efficient routes (her knowledge of the area as a real estate practitioner comes in handy) to limit expenses, like truck rental costs. All who spoke about Berg complimented her strategy for coordinating the pickups despite mercurial donor demands.
If that isn’t enough, Berg also manages the command central room during the sales—where volunteers come to troubleshoot everything from a dearth of rubber bands to workers going MIA from their shift to “we think someone had stroke.” To put the size of this undertaking in perspective: 700 volunteers staff each sale.
Berg volunteers at least 14 hours a day during sale week. And that’s how she spends her “vacation time.” The rest of the year, she spends several hours a week working as part of the eight-member committee to plan the next sale, recruit volunteers, and make process improvements.
How does she fit it all in? “I’m not the person [at the office] who stands around the water cooler. I focus on tasks.” She doesn’t use her charity work to find new clients. But she can use her real estate contacts to find folks who are moving or downsizing and have quality items to donate.
Paying It Forward and Back
Berg’s most meaningful memory from the sales was the day a Syrian woman, a refugee, wandered into the command central, seemingly lost. “She raised a tiny hand and said ‘Hi’ meekly,” the only English she knew, Berg says. “I left command central. My chores be damned. I’ll help her. I wanted to set an example that it’s just not that hard to be kind to people, even those who wear a scarf on their hair and don’t speak the language.”
Using a translation app on her phone and some pantomime, Berg helped the woman find essentials like pants, a coat, and boots. “You could see how challenging life could be for her,” says Berg.
It’s her willingness to drop what she’s doing and help people that has endeared her to the UMW community. That empathy stems from a very tough upbringing: Berg grew up in housing projects in Lansing, Michigan, “where the poorest of the poor go,” she says, recalling Christmases without presents and times she went to bed hungry.
On top of that, her mom was abusive. “I felt that as a kid no one saw me and the many bruises, and there was no one to tell my troubles to,” Berg says. “I used to walk to church and sit in the pew and pray to God to die.”
But when charity volunteers would occasionally show up at the door with food, clothes, and toys, “I thought, just maybe God saw us, or maybe these [visitors] noticed we needed help,” Berg recalls. “Those [visitors] bringing things shaped my view that we have to open our eyes to people around us and look for the helpers.
“And, then, when you’re able, be the helper.”