Low-cost thrift store helps with high cost of education

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Who knew that a low-cost thrift shop could parlay the perennial high cost of education? Gunda Iaea, a sprightly octogenarian, had the time and vision to open a clean, well-lighted small business that exists at the school to serve Waimea Elementary School children.

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Who knew that a low-cost thrift shop could parlay the perennial high cost of education? Gunda Iaea, a sprightly octogenarian, had the time and vision to open a clean, well-lighted small business that exists at the school to serve Waimea Elementary School children.

Five years ago, Iaea could feel the sedentary life in her Waimea senior care home begin to saturate her day, so she marshaled her decades-long retail experience into the pitch: Would a school principal chance turning over prized school space to this earnest entrepreneur? That principal said “yes” and the Waimea Elementary School Thrift Store was born.

“Ultimately, we need a Gunda to do it,” said current Waimea Elementary School Principal Scott Tamura on the store’s success.

Operating the store, which boasts an array of gently used items from clothing and dishes to toys and knick-knacks, every Saturday morning and Wednesday afternoon, requires several volunteer teachers to help with pricing donations, organizing inventory and designing store merchandise. That’s in addition to Iaea, who also volunteers several hours daily to the thrift store, including making the bank deposit each week.

Thrift store profits, totalling between $700 and $1,000 each month, directly fund student enrichment, such as attending a “Peter and the Wolf” performance at Kahilu Theatre — located a short walking distance from the school for which purchasing tickets at $4 to $7 for all 578 students can become costly. Also, field trips are taken — including a voyage to the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii in Hilo.

The money also helps fund the unexpected, such as when a student needs the required school T-shirt or a computer case to protect Chrome books handed out to students this year after a new lab opened. On occasion, these arrive as donations, which, Iaea, in turn, funnels back to a student for free.

Despite the thrift store’s success, the school’s principal, Tamura, said there remains the challenge of allocating space for a growing school and thrift store. Some school faculty, for instance, could use more office space. Meanwhile, another building often remains idle, a space reserved for intermittent district-wide meetings. However, Tamura and Iaea are discussing how to use an open lanai space to streamline thrift store donations.

Having grown up during World War II, when the Germans invaded her hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark, challenges are familiar to Iaea and seem to have built her empathy for families living on a budget. During that time, bus fare was not available for the safer school farther away. The year was 1943. As a 14-year-old, she decided to eschew formal education in search of reliable income. Never looking back, she has fostered support for her own family since then. Today, she proudly praises her three children, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

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“I think I did a good job from nothing,” Iaea, a resident of the Big Island for the past 20 years, concludes about the community collaborative Waimea Elementary Thrift Store.

The Waimea Elementary School Thrift Store is located in the back of the school’s campus — near the post office entry to the school yard. It is open from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays and from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays.

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