Just driving by South Park Senior’s, Inc. in Fairplay, one might never imagine the magnitude of the work that occurs there on a daily basis.
The most visible structure at 298 Sixth Street is the South Park Senior’s Inc. Thrift Store, donning a giant “Donation Drop-Off Here” banner that spans almost the entire width of the front porch.
Typical of most thrift stores, the front entrance area is often lined with recently donated items that have not yet been processed and set out for sale. And, as with most thrift stores, employees at the South Park Senior’s Inc. can be seen scurrying about the premises in a seemingly endless effort to collect and process a mountain of donations while also tending to the business of selling items and serving customers.
In those ways, the South Park Senior’s Inc. thrift store is much like any other. But upon further examination, it becomes obvious that it is no ordinary thrift store at all. From the way in which it is organized and operated, to the way it serves needy individuals and families throughout Park County, it is a one-of-a-kind operation that serves a badly-needed niche within the community.
About South Park Senior’s Inc.
What sets South Park Senior’s Inc. and its thrift store apart, first and foremost, is that they drive the distribution of more than 4,000 pounds of food per month to needy individuals and families in Park County, and have been doing so since 1993.
South Park Senior’s Inc. is run by an 11-member board of volunteers, and is classified as a private 501(e)(3). The thrift store completely funds the operation, and the only paid employees within the organization are the two cashiers who work there. The thrift store is open seven days a week.
The organization currently offers a food bank for the community on the second Saturday of each month, typically serving about 150 people. It also typically offers a lunch program every Wednesday, but that has been put on hold due to COVID-19 health concerns.
The 24x34-foot building which houses the thrift store was built two years ago. The project took about all of the organization’s funds at the time, but was constructed without the use of grants or donations of any kind.
“We spent about $50,000 on materials for the building, and at the time I think the organization only had about $55,000 to its name,” said South Park Senior’s Inc. President, Larry Foster. “We did get some help toward the end of the construction from Habitat for Humanity in Chaffee County, and we are grateful to them for that, but that was it. The rest we did on our own.”
The sheer size of the thrift store, the volume of inventory it offers, and the quality of the merchandise it sells is also uncommon to most traditional thrift shops.
“People from all over the area come here to donate on a regular basis,” Larry said. “Residents from about four surrounding counties contribute greatly to our inventory, in addition to what’s donated by local residents. So we’re fortunate to get some exceptional stuff.”
Countless Park County residents have contributed to the success of South Park Senior’s Inc. since 1993, and many still do. In recent years, however, Foster, 80, and his wife of 57 years, Shirley Foster, have been front and center at ground zero in the effort to feed the residents of Park County.
Residents of Fairplay since 2006, Larry and Shirley have been intimately involved in the organization’s every-day operations for the last four years.
“We enjoy it, or we wouldn’t do it,” Larry said with a chuckle. “We were part of a generation that felt like if there was a need to fill, then we filled it. And since there is a poverty rate of about fifty percent in Park County, there are a lot of needs to fill here. People just passing through wouldn’t realize it, necessarily, but I think people who live here recognize that a lot of local residents are in need of assistance.”
Shirley, who typically does the cooking for
community events in addition to serving as treasurer of the South Park Senior’s Inc., agreed.
“I guess volunteering is just in our blood,” she said. “Larry serves on three boards in addition to what he does here.”
Larry also serves as vice president for the Park County RE-2 School Board, as well as secretary treasurer for the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services in Buena Vista.
He has a passion for helping those in need, and does so without passing judgment or placing artificial qualifications as to whom he is willing to help.
“It’s really not our place to determine who needs or deserves help,” Foster said. “We help people who say they need it, and they are all extremely grateful. We serve all sorts of people, and we are happy to do it. Everything we do here is completely transparent, and it’s always been that way.”
“We have one family with nine children who come here regularly, and we have some people who come here who are older than we are,” Shirley said.
The Fosters said they enjoy getting to know the people they serve, and that social interaction is part of what makes their efforts worthwhile. The Wednesday Lunch Program, especially, has taken on a life of its own from a social perspective.
According to Larry, all sorts of people attend Wednesday lunches. Some might not be as needy as others, but they are all welcome and they all add to the social flavor of the event.
Despite the enormous service they help to provide, and the seemingly infinite number of hours they volunteer to the organization, the Fosters are not in the business of self-promotion.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable having our picture in the paper because I am only a board member and there are 10 others who deserve recognition just as much as we do,” Larry said. “There are many others who deserve credit, too. Debbie Just, for example, has worked tirelessly for this organization for 24 years and has never accepted a penny for what she does.”
Even though the Fosters might be too modest to accept praise or accolades for their efforts, Fairplay Mayor Frank Just still willing offer some of his own with regards to their roles within the organization, as well as the role that South Park Senior’s Inc. fills for so many South Park residents.
“I really don’t know how we would manage without South Park Senior’s Inc. and the work it does,” Just said. “I can’t even imagine how many people have benefitted from their efforts over the years. It’s different from anything I’ve ever been around, and they serve an enormous purpose for Park County and its residents. People can go to Park County Senior’s Inc. and are not embarrassed to ask for help, and that attitude of acceptance is part of what makes it so special.”
Just acknowledged that his wife has spent almost 25 years volunteering for the organization, but added that it has been a labor of love for her. He also emphasized that the organization is not only responsible for keeping Park County residents fed, but that its thrift store also serves a vital role in providing affordable clothing for the community.
A chance to help
Local residents seeking meaningful volunteer opportunities would do well to contact Park County Senior’s Inc. Assistance storing food which is delivered weekly, processing and organizing donated items, breaking down boxes and many other daily tasks provide a wealth of opportunities for those seeking ways to serve the community.
Foster said the organization has a variety of projects and property upgrades that need to be completed in the near future, and that any assistance community members can provide would be greatly appreciated.
“I would like to replace siding on the building, make updates to our kitchen, add some insulation and install storm windows,” Larry said.
The original building on the property was constructed in 1873, so constant upkeep is required. Interestingly, according to Foster, the building has also served as a school, dance hall, a kitchen for the school and a youth center over the years.
“We do need volunteers, and we welcome any help we can get from those willing to pitch in,” Foster said.
Finally, Shirley asked that people be made aware that South Park Senior’s Inc. will be providing free turkey dinners Nov. 19 (take-out only). More information about that event, or volunteering, can be obtained by calling 719-836-1645.