CATTARAUGUS - Members of the Ladies Civic League heard a lively presentation of how and why the enterprise called Trading Post South came to Cattaraugus. Executive Director Linette Crelly and Outreach Director Elizabeth O'Neill, the two guiding lights of the establishment, gave their audience a slide show detailing its history, as well as that of its parent organization, Fellowship Hill Ministries, of Springville, N.Y.
Also on hand, was one of the most dedicated of Trading Post South's volunteers, Mrs. Pat Gunsolus. Said O'Neill, "I looked up one day and there she was. I'm continually amazed at all the things she can do."
Mrs. Crelly started off by telling the group that originally she and her husband, Todd, had planned careers in in the military-he, as a marine, and she, a navy nurse. "But," said Linette, "our hopes and dreams were crushed after I injured by back while on active duty."
Eventually she received a medical discharge. But, after two children and several surgeries, Linette's back problems worsened, as did the couple's finances.
Then came her epiphany. Struggling to make ends meet, the young mother entered a thrift store one day. She asked the clerk if she could exchange a few pairs of jeans for just one pair in a different size. "That's not our policy," she was coolly informed.
Tearful and humiliated, Linette walked out the door. "But from that experience," she said, "grew a determination to do something, someday to help someone like myself, and to do it in a way that didn't rob the person of her dignity." She and her husband decided to assist others in similar financial straits by holding clothing swaps in their home.
From that shaky beginning and that fierce determination, grew Fellowship Hills Ministries, which in turn birthed The Trading Post Community Care Center, originally located on Main Street in Springville. True to the Crellys' purpose, the "Post" became a place where people in need could come and trade household objects, clothing, children's toys and the like for vouchers called Trading Post Bucks. The "bucks," in turn, could be used like money to purchase other, more badly needed articles.
"Our policy," said Crelly, "was to run the center in such a way as to instill hope and dignity into the lives of the people we serve." In addition to supplying their patrons' basic needs, the staff strives to improve quality of life by providing both the message and the means to emerge from seemingly hopeless situations.
Linette's warm, dark eyes reflected her enthusiasm as she added, "At the core of our program, we address integrity, self-esteem, respect and support of traditional family structure and values."
Gradually the Springville Trading Post's Main Street location revealed its limitations, and its founders discovered an empty building just around the corner on Franklin Street. It was larger, it was for sale, so the Crellys took the plunge and moved.
Husband Todd partnered with Catholic Charities and Young Life to open the Southern Tier Food Pantry on the premises, and the new site quickly made its mark as a source of hope and optimism to the truly impoverished, as well as to families brought low by the failing economy.
"Over fifty percent of the people we serve are the working poor," said Linette. "They're just trying to make ends meet."
About then, another young, energetic idealist, Elizabeth O'Neill, appeared on the scene. Hailing from about twenty miles south of Springville, she was well-acquainted with the need so prevalent in that mostly rural part of the county. Noting that Cattaraugus and surroundings has one of the highest populations of people living under the poverty level, she was soon lobbying to set up a branch operation in that village.
When a building, the former Hot Spot, came up for sale, she started dickering with owner, Terry Finnegan. Several months went by, and a deal was struck. Next came the hard work of restoring the old derelict to useable condition.
Today, with attractive new windows, fresh paint indoors and out, donated clothing racks, newly constructed shelving, and a host of other all-volunteer improvements, Trading Post South is taking on a life of its own. O'Neill can rattle off a wish list of other needs, but interrupts herself to exclaim, "Praise God for everything He has done for us."
Already, the Food Pantry has moved in and is serving numerous families in the area. Some people are donating household objects (in good condition) and gently used clothing, while others are purchasing these goods, or "trading" for them. Right now, the "Post" is putting on a "Coats4Kids" drive--although Elizabeth stressed that coats for any age are needed and will be much appreciated as our mild November gives way to the inevitable Western New York snows.
Civic Leaguers, moved by the young women's story, asked how they could help, and learned there were countless ways--through donations of needed articles (including food for the pantry), through volunteerism, mentoring, or even with monetary assistance. "For every $1.00 donated, we can purchase seven pounds of food from the Food Bank of WNY," explained Linette.
Currently The Trading Post locations are assisting over 800 families and individuals per month with food, clothing and household goods. $72,570 worth of Trading Bucks have been exchanged within just the past year. In addition, hundreds of items are given free to referred families undergoing crisis situations.
Elizabeth added that in the near future, Food Express will be making monthly truck deliveries of perishable food, such as cheese and other dairy products, fruits and veggies. "They will arrive on Wednesday afternoon and the food will be available to anyone who needs or wants it;" she said.
"By the way," she added, "if you happen to know any young people who could give us and hour or two, we really need strong arms and legs to help us unload the provisions."
With Christmas fast approaching, The Trading Post has embarked on several ambitious seasonal activities. "If you want to help," said Elizabeth, "we could use shoppers, wrappers, clerks, clothes sorters--. Oh, the jobs are endless," she finished with a laugh.
It's obvious that these two dedicated young women have abiding faith that God will help them continue to find solutions to the problems that beset them. They say things like, "We'll get there little by little, in His time," or "God was so good to us." They laugh a lot, and they finish each other's sentences. In the face of great odds, they believe that they "will overcome."
It's doubtful that anyone in their audience could disbelieve their enthusiastic optimism.