From Spring Cleaning to Meeting the Needs of Others

Established in 1960, Knox Area Rescue Ministries began as a response to the rise in homelessness in Knoxville, not only to provide food and shelter, but also to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of those displaced. Today, KARM serves nearly 1,000 meals per day and provides emergency and residential shelter for men, women and families, upwards of 400 people per night. KARM is uniquely positioned to help people in crisis, but at the heart of KARM isn’t a temporary fix. It’s a deep desire to care for those in the immediacy of their need, to nurture their spirits through the transition, and help them create a new life with purpose and hope.

One of the ways KARM carries out its mission is through its 18 thrift stores, from Morristown and Alcoa to Oak Ridge and Sevierville, and everywhere in between. While all of the stores function the same way and provide the same services, it’s the Farragut location that receives the most traffic. According to Evan Crass, director of partner engagement, the Kingston Pike store takes in 20 percent of donations across all 18 stores.

“It’s beautiful what’s been entrusted to us,” he says. “We tell the story. We reveal Christ. As a gospel-based initiative, if we can’t be Jesus to people, we’re failing. We take great pains to do this, from the collection to the point of sale. Every $2 [spent in the store] provides a meal.”

The busiest week at KARM thrift stores is typically the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Second to that is the spring cleaning season. However, after Tidying Up with Marie Kondo hit Netflix in January, there’s been a surge of donations, which put KARM’s sorting team through its paces.

“We had a week to beat the record, and it lasted three weeks in a row,” Evan says. “We had to set up a temporary warehouse to sort through everything.”

FIRST STOP: The Hand-Off

“This is our most critical touchpoint,” Evan says. “I refer to these people as our VIPs. We take care of them. You don’t have to get out of your cars. If you’ve donated before and have your preferred partner listed, then you can just give and drive off.”

The Partnership Program is unique to KARM. With every donation made, the donor can denote where a portion of their donation can go in the form of gifts cards. Once a quarter, Evan is personally responsible for calculating and delivering those thrift store gift cards to area churches and organizations. On average, more than $100,000 in gifts cards are distributed each quarter.

“We want to help people before they are homeless, and one of the challenges of helping people is giving them something they don’t want. This way, they can shop for the things they want,” Evan says.

Once the gift cards are given to churches and organizations, it’s left to the administrators’ discretion to distribute them.

“They know where the need is. Some get passed along to teachers and school counselors, some to foster/adoption organizations. It goes full circle.”

KARM employees who work at the hand-off are trained on software developed in-house and are given a script that starts with the question, “Have you donated here before?” With only a few minutes to interact with VIPs, KARM representatives strive to make the process upbeat, easy and quick.

NEXT STOP: Sorting

The first step in sorting donations is a quick one: does it pass the smell test? If a donation has a whiff of mildew, smoke or pet urine, it’s a no-go. Without a professional cleaning facility, KARM employees have no way to transform those donations into sellable items. So, if it fails the smell test, it gets tossed. If it passes, the item gets sorted into the category of “hard or soft,” which is the simplest way of sorting textiles from appliances and other objects. As a rule, employees attempt to find a use for everything.

“We try to identify everything and take the time to check brands and see what something costs. Donors get the receipt with all the pertinent IRS info on for them to place a value, but we check everything so we can price it for resale,” Evan says.

On average, the total process time for items is a week, but it could be as early the same day that something is donated and placed in the store for resale. After a tedious, careful sorting, items are placed in bins in the “ready area” for workers on the floor to grab at their availability.

FINAL STOP: Resale

As the busiest store in the area, the Farragut location is a shining example of how KARM representatives endeavor to create a pleasant shopping experience for their customers. The space is brightly lit, impeccably organized and fully staffed with helpful, smiling volunteers and employees. Every part of the store’s design and function is intentional.

“We use Instagram and newsletters to highlight good finds, and we have a dedicated team just for bikes,” Evan says.

The KARM Bike Initiative was created a year ago in an effort to repair broken donated bikes and place quality, refurbished bikes on the floor for resale. There is an entire dedicated bike repair room with spare parts, tires and tools.

Though KARM employees upwards of 300 people to carry out its mission, the work couldn’t be accomplished without the ongoing hard work by faithful volunteers. Last year, more than 34,000 volunteer hours were logged. It would be impossible to accomplish the necessary work without them.

“Everyone has something to give,” Evan says. “If you don’t have a dime to your name, you can give of your time.”

WHAT THEY ACCEPT:

KARM accepts the following items for collection:

  • Furniture*  desks, tables, chairs, bed frames, dressers, couches, end tables, bookcases
  • Household items –  linens, towels, lamps, area rugs, artwork, tools, kitchen appliances, pots/pans, China, glassware
  • Clothing – shirts, pants, dresses, suits and coats for men, women and children
  • Electronics – televisions, DVD and Blu-Ray players, mobile phones
  • Appliances – washers, dryers, refrigerators, freezers, stoves, microwave ovens
  • Toys, Games and other Children’s items – books, board games, movies, music, collectibles
  • Other – Bikes, exercise equipment, medical equipment, office furniture

KARM does not accept building materials, auto parts, mattresses, car seats, gas appliances, pianos, organs, safety helmets or fluids of any kind. If you are unsure about a specific donation, call a local store or email your inquiry to donations@karm.org.

*A transportation team provides scheduled pick-ups for large furniture and other hard-to-transport items six days a week.