On a recent Saturday morning people — drawn either by a Facebook item or just a glimpse of its windows — stopped in to explore an unusual thrift shop on Main Street in Port Jefferson.
Men and women, some with their teenage children, thronged the small shop in a redbrick and light-blue two-story building at 1506 Main St., walking distance from the waterfront.
Some were dropping off large bags of clothing, toys and other things. Some were just curious, and some wanted to shop.
Those who were able to crowd inside excitedly picked out vintage glassware or rummaged through the store’s assortment of collectibles overflowing wall cabinets, dressers and tables. Many items were selling for less than $10.
Signs leaning against chairs at the entrance to the shop hinted at its purpose. One sign read: "I am grateful for life"; "Providing Hope for a Better Tomorrow," stated another.
Deirdre Cronin of Poquot had come with her daughter, Jacqueline, 14.
"This is a great find, it’s going to be on our list," said Cronin, chief operating officer of Covenant House. Mother and daughter have what amounts to a hobby of visiting thrift shops. This was their third stop for the day.
"This is such a wonderful place," remarked another visitor who’d just stepped in. "Where do you get your donations from?"
Mike Szollosi, of Port Jefferson, the former owner of an antiques store, was also immediately impressed by the shop and its contents. "Once I saw it, I had to stop," he said. "She has quality stuff."
Szollosi was referring to the thrift shop’s founder, Melissa Paulson, 34, of Port Jefferson, who said she was inspired to give back by an outpouring of kindness she and her daughter, Loranda, now 13, received when she was diagnosed at 18 months with neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer.
"She stopped walking; she was dragging her legs; we knew something was wrong," Paulson recalled. "Memorial Sloan Kettering [Hospital in Manhattan] saved her life. During her treatment, people we didn’t know would send us toys, care packages — the generosity of total strangers."
"It was incredible," Paulson continued. "Normal life was being in the hospital. We were blessed by what people did for us. I knew at some point I would want to give back in a big way. I wanted to give hope to children battling cancer; I wanted to give hope to people battling cancer like us."
Nonprofit is born
Paulson, then 24, put aside her ambition to become a special-education teacher to give her full attention to her daughter’s care and to her decision to assist others living with cancer.
She decided establishing a charity would be the best channel for the nonprofit, all-volunteer operation she envisioned. Her organization was established in March 2010, and she named it "Give Kids Hope."
Passionate to get it going, Paulson initially operated Give Kids Hope out of her mother’s home in Hauppauge where she grew up. "People would drop off gently used clothing, toys and other items at my garage," she said.
Give Kids Hope has held four silent auctions, with each raising from $2,000 to $3,000. She held raffles, meet-and-greets, yard sales, garage sales and found other ways of raising funds.
"But we never raised enough to carry rent to continue the program," she said.
"I didn’t expect fundraising to be so hard," Paulson said. She did what she could with what she got, sometimes making small grants to pay for such things as gas and parking.
In 2016, as she grappled with the fundraising challenges, her husband, Scott, an operating engineer, lost his job.
"I was in a predicament," Paulson said. "Thankfully, with savings, we were able to survive."
Undeterred by the challenges, she continued what she considered her mission. "I started giving my own stuff," she explained.
"When my daughter got sick, my life was dedicated to helping," Paulson said. "I used my misfortune as a positive energy to help people. I said, ‘this is my calling; I am going to repurpose my charity for less fortunate people.’ "
"There are so many Long Islanders suffering every day to put food on the table. I never realized so many families struggle to put food on the table," she said, adding that her initial offers to help over social media were met with overwhelming need. Paulson continues to get the organization’s message out using Facebook and through churches, hospitals, social-services organizations and word-of-mouth.
Among ways of helping, six days a week Give Kids Hope offers free pantry items, including fresh and canned meats, chicken, hot dogs. "Whatever we can purchase," Paulson said. "Every Friday we give out baked goods and breads to anyone who needs."
Assistance includes free monthly shopping outings at the thrift shop when families can "shop" the array of "generous donations the community donates," Paulson said. "Nobody pays a dime." Donations include money and food, she said.
There also are Christmas and birthday celebrations for people living in shelters orchestrated by "adopting families" through Facebook and churches.
"If somebody messages us saying they are leaving a shelter we give them furniture and other necessities," Paulson said.
Among the organizations Paulson has worked with is Family Service League, which runs shelters on Long Island. Its efforts are supported through local government and donors like Paulson, said president and CEO Karen Boorshtein.
"Her [Paulson's] compassion and ingenuity has provided our families, especially the children, living here with so many of life’s ‘extras,’ " Boorshtein said. "Melissa’s generous support brings happiness and hope to those otherwise struggling financially and emotionally."
Creating a space
Since its founding, the charity has been "inundated with requests," Paulson said, noting that in the past two years it has served hundreds of families.
After operating out of her mom’s home until 2014, Paulson moved the operation to her own home in Port Jefferson. But, two years ago, "it became clear the charity could no longer do it out of my house," Paulson said. "Our living space wasn’t our living space anymore."
Yet, she couldn’t raise enough money to rent space.
When the charity twice faced the possibility of having to stop operating, however, an anonymous Smithtown benefactress who’d donated pantry items before made two separate $5,000 donations that enabled Give Kids Hope to move into a space on Nesconset Highway in 2020, and when its lease there expired, into its present location on Main Street this year.
"She’s incredible," Paulson said of the donor. "She didn’t want to see the thrift close."
On Aug. 2, Give Kids Hope Thrift & Donation Center opened its doors to the public at 1506 Main St. All proceeds from sales of donated items and from other fundraisers go directly to the mission, said Paulson.
A Facebook Live auction, held Tuesdays at 7 p.m, is a another way Give Kids Hope is trying to raise funds, she said.
The next big event, meanwhile, is a Halloween Party, which is free to anyone, scheduled for Oct. 23 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the thrift shop. The charity is giving away free Halloween costumes to anyone who plans to attend.
"It’s going to be a fun event," said Paulson. "There’ll be a costume contest, raffles, games, pumpkin decorating, refreshments and more."
As people filled the shop on a recent day, Loranda — the catalyst for Paulson’s selfless philanthropy now 13 and in remission — worked alongside her mother and two of her six volunteers, busily calling out to Paulson to price items customers wanted, and wrapping them while her brother, Harry, 3, played at her side.
Loranda, who is in the eighth grade, is an accomplished equestrian, a show jumper with her own bay horse, a mare she calls Maci.
"I feel fine," Loranda said of living with cancer. "I help with organizing the [fundraising] events, and go with my mother to pick up donations." She also sews bags for the pantry donations to be given away in.
A new volunteer, Lauren Buscarino, 22, was cheerfully organizing the pantry, which was amply stocked with such things as chicken, turkey, cheese, hot dogs, yogurt and milk.
"Eventually I will help bag food," Buscarino said. "Ultimately I will help wherever I’m needed." She said she hopes she can recruit her three younger siblings to help.
Paulson would like to widen her sources of support so she can do more. "We need more people to know we are here," she said.
Learning of her generosity, many people are motivated to assist in any way they can.
Dawn McNiff, 44, a graphic designer who lives in Smithtown, accompanied by her teenage daughters, Emily and Allison, and her son, Sean — all of whom "help me pack the car" — is donating Halloween costumes for the Halloween party. They also brought children’s clothes, school bags, kitchen appliances and toys.
"It’s a nice thing she’s doing to help her community," Dawn said. "Whatever would help, them we’re happy to do."
Debi McKay, a Port Jefferson Girl Scout leader, said as its Silver Award Project, her four-member Troop 1583, based at Comsewogue High School, is building a Blessing Box — a 6-by-3-foot wooden shelving unit for the charity. "They give back to the community, and the Scouts wanted to be part of that," McKay said.
Vinny Masone, 63, of Port Jefferson, a father of four grown children and a foster and adoptive parent, held a tag sale in early October at his home to benefit Give Kids Hope.
Masone said when he gets calls from people needing help, he refers them to Paulson. "She takes care of everybody," he said. "People call her in the middle of the night. She needs help picking up and dropping off; I’ve helped her on and off for several years."
He plans to continue. "She’s a kindhearted person."
A retired Con Edison worker, Masone said, "I’m blessed; I have to give back."
Debbie Grimes, 59, of Shirley and her husband, James 60, a security guard in the Central Islip School District, were visiting Give Kids Hope Thrift & Donation Center for the first time, shopping for "nice little objects my family members might like," Debbie said.
The couple offered to dress up for the charity as Santa and Mrs. Claus at Christmastime.
"It’s something we do together to help 501(c)(3)'s [nonprofits]," Debbie said. "We found out this was a 501(c)(3) and we wanted to donate to a worthy cause. We love to go to thrift stores, especially the 501(c)(3)'s, to help them out."
That’s also the aim of Paulson’s thrift shop volunteers. April Coburn, a "stay-at-home mom" with a 17-year-old son, was a donor before the store opened at its present site and has been an active volunteer for more than six weeks.
"It’s my home away from home," Coburn said, as she answered customers’ questions nonstop. Coburn is helping Paulson fulfill her mission.
"My mission is to bring hope to upper Port Jefferson, to get the community engaged," Paulson said. "I want to be part of the upcoming revitalization."
Paulson, who announced a run for Port Jefferson mayor and then withdrew, said she plans to run for village trustee next year "to continue to vocalize for Port Jefferson."
"This charity is so dear to my heart because of how many people are without and have no one to lean on," said Paulson. "We want to be that helping hand in their time of need."
All are welcome at the Give Kids Hope Trick or Treat Halloween Party, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 23. The organization is giving free Halloween costumes to anyone who plans to attend. The event will include pumpkin decorating, raffles, games, a costume contest and refreshments; 1506 Main St., Port Jefferson; 631-538-5287; facebook.com/givekidshopeinc.
To widen its outreach, Give Kids Hope Thrift & Donation Center has many needs itself: volunteers to help sort through donated items and to be in the store between 9 and 10 a.m. to set up new items, help run the store and, especially, the pantry. The organization also needs volunteers with trucks to pick up and deliver items; volunteers are also needed to organize fundraising events and more.
"We need sponsors to donate food for the pantry; a grant writer to help us secure funds; donation of a box trailer to distribute food in different underprivileged areas on Long Island," said Melissa Paulson, who founded Give Kids Hope in 2010 and who regularly makes pickup and deliveries using her own truck.
Give Kids Hope accepts clothing, shoes, toys, handbags, jewelry, antiques, vintage collectibles, pantry items, home decorations, electronics, furniture, diapers and wipes.
"We take credit cards," Paulson assured thrift store shoppers.
Store items are also auctioned on a Facebook Live program at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays at facebook.com/givekidshopeinc.
The thrift shop, at 1506 Main St., is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Parking is available. For more information call, 631-5385287.
Title photo: Melissa Paulson, right, founder of Give Kids Hope Thrift & Donation Center, with her children, Harry and Loranda. | Photo by Raychel Brightman