Burlington’s Donation Connection offers customers essentials for free
Hours after a Burlington family of six (with a baby on the way) had lost their home to a fire, leaving most of its possessions damaged by smoke, Sherry Bandy-Chamblee was soliciting baby supplies to help the cause.
Bandy-Chamblee runs Donation Connection, where people can drop off or pick up basic essentials, free of charge.
The mother of the family who lost their home reached out via the store’s Facebook page asking for help. Bandy-Chamblee went to work, explaining to her customers the sudden need and asking for donated items. Neighbors helping neighbors.
Two days later, on July 7, Bandy-Chamblee provided the family with diapers, baby wipes and bottles, at no cost.
Helping people going through hard times has become Bandy-Chamblee’s mission.
Donation Connection is located at 3138 Sunnyside Ave. in Burlington. It is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
But it isn’t a store in the traditional sense. All items are donated and no one is ever charged for anything they walk out with.
“This isn’t my store,” Bandy-Chamblee said. “This is the community’s store. Because the community has supplied all of this. … I run it. I’m at the center of it. But none of this is mine. This all belongs to everybody else.”
Store’s purpose: ‘I don’t want people to struggle when it’s something I have’
The store carries clothing, shoes, sanitary products, blankets, toys, school supplies, books, furniture and other household items that most people probably take for granted.
Those who come to the store are allowed to fill up to three bags full of items per family and can do so once a week, unless the family or individual is in dire need.
The people that come to the store are typically experiencing some kind of poverty or personal hardship, including homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues or domestic abuse. They may have lost their home or possessions to a house fire or natural disaster, be just out of prison, or recently unemployed.
Bandy-Chamblee is no stranger to hard times herself.
“I look around (the store) and think, ‘What else do I need? What else can I do?'” she said. “I don’t want people to struggle when it’s something I have. I know that struggle.”
Bandy-Chamblee said a combination of bad choices in relationships, and alcohol and drug addiction, caused her to lose her children to foster care before she entering rehab in 1992.
She was eventually reunited with her children after getting clean, but says the six or seven years that followed were a struggle as she adjusted to sobriety and getting her life back on track.
Following her desire to give back to those in need, in 2016, she began working as a donations coordinator for Transitions DMC, a Burlington charity that helps homeless individuals. In November 2017, she lost that job during a remodel.
That same month, her husband Wayne accidentally fell off of a roof he was working on and was paralyzed. Bandy-Chamblee helped him recover and learn to walk again.
First Burlington location opens when landlord agrees to reduce rent
Meanwhile, she continued to give away things she had in her home to those in need before opening the first Donation Connection location on Osborn Street in February, after the landlord of the property agreed to lower the rent so she could afford take her mission to the next level.
By using Facebook and word-of-mouth, Bandy-Chamblee spread the word about Donation Connection and gathered enough items and funds to keep helping those who came to the store.
The store held a “grand opening” party at its old location in June, which turned out to be a big success.
“People came in hordes,” she said. “We served 400 hot dogs. We had a bounce house and we had music and karaoke and 74 different silent auction items and we raised $2,100. It was wonderful. The community was just amazing.”
The money raised allowed Donation Connection to the chance to move to a new, cheaper location.
After taking two weeks to get settled in, Bandy-Chamblee held a grand opening at her current location on July 7, helping the nearly 50 people who came to the store that day.
She’s getting help running the store from her husband, her longtime friend Teresa Jones, and Jones’ 4-year-old dog, Syke.
But she’s had to make certain sacrifices to carry out Donation Connection’s mission.
Next challenge: Getting Donation Connection certified as a non-profit
Bandy-Chamblee doesn’t draw a salary and the store makes no profit. Donation Connection’s rent and other bills are paid solely through donated funds.
Some days she arrives at 8 a.m. and stays past midnight.
Bandy-Chamblee has the final say over what she can give away and there are times she needs to make judgement calls about what a person can leave her store with based on what she has to offer and if there are others in greater need. That is difficult, she said.
“I’m not tough-skinned. I give in a lot,” she said. “It eats me, because I don’t know if I’m right or wrong at the end of the day. Part of me feels like I should have went along and let them have it, because it’s donated anyways. But you can tell when someone’s on a high when they come in by their actions. And I know that they’re looking at the tags to see if they’re name-brand and (are thinking about) taking them and selling or trading them to get what they want.”
At times, people are unhappy with what she has to offer and make their complaints known. Some have even tried to take advantage of her and steal from the store.
“I had a family that came in and wiped me out of all my blankets, all my sheets,” she said. “One of them kept (Teresa) busy talking, I was back here putting donations out and she walked out with a lot of stuff. And I know who she is, so she’s not going to be allowed in. She’s gonna be stopped at the door. … And that’s going to be the hardest thing for me, because I haven’t banned anybody from being here.”
But Bandy-Chamblee refuses to quit. She said the store is thriving.
“The people in this town have treated me so well,” she said. “If I have a very dire need for something, it’s here within the next couple of days.”
Donation Connection is working to establish itself as a non-profit organization, but Bandy-Chamblee said she’s going to need to hire a lawyer to help her through the process.
Bandy-Chamblee would like to expand to a bigger building in the future, with separate rooms for clothes, furniture and other items, as well a playroom for the children.
“Am I ever gonna get there? I don’t know. But am I going to stop trying to get there? No,” she said. “This place is my heart and soul. If I lost this place, I would run it from my house. I don’t wanna see kids have to go without. (Donation Connection) honestly brought me out of a depression. I was thinking more about everyone else and not my own problems.”