- Troubled by the high volume of usable household items left behind by tenants, REALTOR® Tami Hicks in Ames, Iowa, wanted to remove them from the waste stream and give them new life.
- She and her husband began selling the items out of a commercial space they owned and donated the proceeds to Children’s Hope Chest in Uganda.
- She connected with two other like-minded residents and in 2014 started the Overflow Thrift Store, which has contributed more than $514,000 to causes close to home and around the world.
A decade ago, REALTOR® Tami Hicks and her husband, Chris, of Ames, Iowa, who owned a few rental properties, were struck by how much perfectly usable furniture, kitchenware and other household items tenants left behind when they moved out. Some discards sat on the curb or were piled high in a dumpster.
But rather than fret about the waste, she devised an alternative that has helped the environment and changed lives close to home and around the world.
The couple collected the discarded goods in a vacant commercial space they owned just outside the city and held a monthly public sale, donating the proceeds to Children’s Hope Chest, an organization in Uganda that helps uplift impoverished African communities.
“We did that for a while, but I kept thinking this could be bigger,” Hicks says. “This could be better. This could be more.”
Bringing an Idea to Life
At the same time, two other Ames residents Hicks didn’t yet know, Mike Sulc and Cathy Twito, were nurturing similar desires to support people in need in their community and through international organizations. “A mutual friend of ours connected the three of us. We started talking about what we wanted to do. The beauty of it was that we all came at it from different angles and expertise, and then we got to work,” Hicks says.
Their joint vision became Overflow Thrift Store.
Twito had a knack for getting people involved and was not afraid to knock on doors, while Sulc built shelves and figured out who had a skid steer loader and other equipment needed to get their retail space up and running. Hicks brought her business and real estate experience to the venture.
“Tami took the lead on securing the building and working with the landlord. She knew what was needed to get the 501(c)3 status. She took care of all of the administrative needs,” says Sulc, who serves on Overflow’s board as secretary.
Having taken the lead to find the funds they needed to get started, Hicks negotiated a few months of free rent as the store got up and running in 2014.
Overflow, which originally backed four organizations, now supports more than 10 others as well, regularly serving between 5,000 and 6,000 people locally and around the world. Their missions address a wide range of needs: providing adoption assistance, supporting victims of sex trafficking and helping formerly incarcerated men and women find purpose, among others. Their donations to local and international causes since they opened top $514,000.
One group, Life to Life Africa, is based in the small community of Chinhoyi in Zimbabwe. The nonprofit, in which Sulc serves as a director, provides food, medical care, a preschool program and agricultural training to poor families. The monthly donation from Overflow helps Life to Life Africa employ indigenous leaders within the community.
“The support from Overflow enables them to do their work in serving the community in the day-to-day. We run a preschool program in the community from Monday through Friday. The kids who attend receive an education, and they also get breakfast and lunch while they are there,” Sulc says.
“It’s rewarding to know that I am, that we are, a part of something that’s way beyond what we can do individually. As individuals, we could have a garage sale and give a couple hundred dollars away, but this is all about the collective effort.” —Tami Hicks
The store also sponsors the education of six children in Chinhoyi who would otherwise be unable to attend school by providing the funding needed for school fees, supplies and uniforms.
In addition, Overflow provides $1,300 in monthly support to Wings of Refuge, an Ames-based organization that provides services for women recovering from sex trafficking.
“We take care of 100% of the needs for our women while they are able to rest and work on their healing and trauma,” says Angi Bright, Wings of Refuge’s executive director. “We cover expenses for groceries, medical care, programming curriculum and toiletries.”
Wings of Refuge participants also shop for free at Overflow, which now has two locations, as they secure items they need to build a new life.
“It’s another way Overflow has been a blessing to our ministry,” Bright says.
Invested in the Community
Community support proved to be a two-way street from the start. The three co-founders were grateful for the ways their community stepped up to help as they built out the 9,000-square-foot retail space for the thrift store.
“So many hours were donated by other organizations,” Hicks says. “One company built a ramp for carts. Another bails together linens for recycling. This is truly a community effort.”
By 2016, they expanded the space to 12,000 square feet, and in 2019, Overflow was “literally bursting at the seams,” Hicks says. They now have an additional 11,000-square-foot building about a mile away.
The thrift store has grown from one employee to 17 and relies on about 150 volunteers each month. Some staff members are former volunteers, like Patty Mohr, who has been involved with the store since the beginning and who took on the role of volunteer coordinator in recent years.
“Tami is very busy in her own life, but if we need her, she’s here,” Mohr says. “She’s the go-to person, especially when it comes to dealing with landlords or the city or anything that comes up in that way. Big and small, Tami does it.”
Building a Sustainable Future
Back when the Hickses set out to collect the household items their tenants left behind, their purpose went beyond providing monetary contributions to their desired causes to furthering environmental sustainability.
In eight years of operation, Overflow has sold 1.1 million items, keeping most of them out of landfills. The thrift store also partners with a St. Louis–based company called Remains to recycle linens and clothing that aren’t sold—a total of 325 tons so far.
“A few times a year, we fill up a semi-trailer,” Hicks says.
She and her co-founders are ever mindful that the future of Overflow depends on ongoing community support and their faith. “God has had a huge hand in what has happened here. Every time we come upon a hurdle, there’s a solution waiting for us,” she says. “It’s a collective effort so that Overflow can keep going even if one of us needed to walk away.”