KNIGHTDALE — Sheila Prosser is no stranger to volunteering. Over the years, she has been a PTA president, helped organize events for Relay for Life and helped with mission work for her church.
So it was natural for her to start gathering and passing out clothes and household items for families who lost their homes when tornadoes swept through Southeast Raleigh in 2011.
But Prosser wasnt prepared for what came next the stirrings of an idea that she felt divinely driven to bring to fruition.
Prosser had a lot of leftover supplies, and she thought they belonged in a permanent location where people who were temporarily displaced could get free clothes, sheets, pots and pans, and other necessities. She figured a thrift store that sold some donated items could cover the expenses of giving the rest away.
The result is Dream Coat Ministries, which opened two years ago and has grown rapidly ever since with a bustling storefront and a thousand square feet of storage stuffed with more donations.
The nonprofit has expanded to offer free lunches on weekends, televisions for elderly residents, and more. On Saturday, Dream Coat put on a Womens Empowerment Breakfast at Prossers church, Knightdale United Methodist.
Prosser started Dream Coat after being laid off. She says losing her job led her to both reflect on her own goals and pray about her future. Both led her to what is essentially a full-time, unpaid director position.
I pretty much envisioned all of this, but I didnt want to do it myself because I didnt know how, she says. But God just said he needed a mover and a shaker. He needed someone who was going to make things happen, and thats what I do.
Church member Jeff Jennings, who has worked with Dream Coat Ministries through the churchs youth groups, says Prosser has always been the first to welcome new members to the congregation and step in to volunteer. Dream Coat, he says, comes from the same impulse.
Its just her nature to go out of her way to help people, Jennings says. Anything shes involved in, shes one of those people who give 100 percent.
Helping our own
Prosser is boisterous and generous with hugs offered to people shes just met as well as less recent acquaintances. She grew up in Nebraska and maintains a Midwestern accent, even after nearly 30 years in the Triangle.
She and her husband moved to the area in 1985 for his job and raised their four children in the Knightdale area. She served as PTA president at Eastern Wake High School for a time while they went there.
Her husband is a cancer survivor, which is one reason shes been active in Relay for Life. She also held several volunteer roles at her church. She started devoting even more time to those activities in 2009, when she lost her job of 14 years managing an animal hospital.
I was kind of struggling to re-evaluate my own identity and see where I was needed, she says.
She had been helping manage the supplies the church collected for Haiti, and when the tornadoes hit Raleigh, she set up a collection and distribution point for supplies. After a while, she started to see that there were ongoing needs closer to home.
Were always busy helping someone else, she says, but how many times do we stop and talk to our neighbors, to figure out what our neighbors are going through?
The ministry started at her church. The United Methodist Churches gave her $15,000 in grants to get the nonprofit started in its own storefront.
The Dream Coat store is packed solid with inventory clothes, childrens toys, purses, shoes, home décor. Prosser, who had never worked in retail before, says she enjoys setting up displays. On one wall, cocktail purses are tacked up in the middle of empty wooden frames.
Prosser and other volunteers, about 20 in all, wash and press all of the donated items before they are distributed, whether for free or through the store. Volunteers mend furniture, check electronics to make sure they work, clean toys.
We have a seamstress and a carpenter, she says. We have a doll doctor who fixes up toys. We have an electrician who works on appliances and electronics.
Her husband made some of the stores shelving, and Prosser made some herself out of old dressers and a trophy case. She admits to spending an occasional Sunday afternoon at the laundromat cleaning donated items.
On Wednesday, one mother-daughter team scored a last-minute formal dress for an upcoming dance for $10. Another mother, a regular at the store, worked her way through the childrens clothes as her toddler played with toys.
In each of two side rooms, volunteers sorted and ironed clothes. A machine that picks the tiny beads from sweaters whirred in the background.
The store is open three weekdays and one Saturday a month, when they also distribute free bag lunches. On two other Saturdays, she travels to other communities to distribute food, clothes and childrens games.
She distributes free supplies mainly on the days the store is closed. Churches, schools and other nonprofits refer people who might have lost their homes to fire, are fleeing domestic violence, or suddenly find themselves raising their grandchildren.
One of Prossers talents is keeping tabs on community happenings and forging partnerships. She started distributing the televisions through Meals on Wheels, to elderly people who need them to keep up with weather and other local news.
Her store is a regular hangout for residents of a group home for disabled adults next door. Prosser sets out boxes of free items for them to browse and occasionally sends over a box of clothes.
When a volunteer who was helping a customer shop for a formal dress suggested having a dance and providing dresses, Prosser said she knew of an existing dance that could probably use some free attire.
Part of her demand comes from people who cant get to larger charities based in Raleigh.
On the other side of the Neuse River, you have access to transportation, and theres a lot more available, she says. Were that little vessel in between.
So far, the store makes enough to cover rent and expenses. Prosser expects it to turn a profit soon, and she and her board will need to decide what to do with it.
Her first profits will likely go into improving the store. Eventually, she may be able to pay an employee or two maybe even herself. The problem, she says, is that shed like to use any paid positions as incentive to keep good people around.
And shes already not going anywhere.
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