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A treasure trove at the NW Hospice Shop

North West Hospice shop operating in the 'new normal'

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L to R, Hospice staff member Shelly, volunteer Meliosa, Commercial Manager Mary Forte and volunteer Marion. Pics: Carl Brennan

L to R, Hospice staff member Shelly, volunteer Meliosa, Commercial Manager Mary Forte and volunteer Marion. Pics: Carl Brennan

Fianna Fáil Councillor Rosaleen O’Grady pictured with Mary Forte at the Custom House Quay Shop

Fianna Fáil Councillor Rosaleen O’Grady pictured with Mary Forte at the Custom House Quay Shop

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L to R, Hospice staff member Shelly, volunteer Meliosa, Commercial Manager Mary Forte and volunteer Marion. Pics: Carl Brennan

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"The people that donate to us donate the most incredible stuff," says Mary Forte, Commercial Manager of North West Hospice, as she greets shoppers, some familiar faces, and some dipping their toe into sustainable shopping for the first time.

Entering the Hospice shop at Custom House Quay it's clear to see why people come here, everything from suites of furniture, to brand new, never worn shoes are on display, at very reasonable prices.

"A couple not so long ago furnished their entire home from the shop," Mary says, behind a mask which all shoppers are donning when The Sligo Champion dropped by.

Asked how compliance has been since the introduction of mandatory mask wearing last week, Mary said people have been 'fantastic', bar one isolated incident, which, thanks to other shoppers in store, was dealt with promptly.

Each year the Hospice must raise €1.3m to deliver current levels of service and with planning permission granted for a state-of-the-art 12 bed facility adjacent to the current site, at a cost of €8.5m, the shops in Sligo and Carrick-on-Shannon are an integral part of this fundraising.

Closed since March 13th, the loss of much needed revenue from both shops was a massive blow to the Hospice, but, as Mary explained, the Hospice found a way to adapt.

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"We launched our online shop through Donedeal and they've been great, they don't charge us for it."

A shopper can now go on to Donedeal type in 'North West Hospice' and anything that is for sale online will pop up and a click and collect service was adopted.

Even since both shops reopened on June 29th last the online shop has continued.

"It's like another arm of the shops...And if they want a more detailed look at an item a video can be sent."

Mary described the closure of the shops overnight as 'horrendous' and said though the shops are busy again, they have not caught up to pre-Covid times.

Not one to sit on her hands, Mary's title of 'Commercial Manager' extends to furniture remover, delivery driver, sales person and HR manager!

"Before we got our van I would go out with my jeep to pick up stuff," Mary said, before conversing with a woman who had her eye on a handbag.

Now the Hospice have a fit for purpose van which is serviced and taxed each year free gratis thanks to Colm Burns Commercials so the shop can now facilitate the pick up and delivery of items.

What is great about the shops, according to Mary is, people are supporting the hospice but are also getting something in return when they buy something.

"With fundraising, our hand is always out, with the shop, they come in, buy a table and chairs, or a piece of Belleek and they haven't just given you money, they've gone away with something."

Mary explained that though many who come to the shop do so to support the charity, others are not aware of the incredible work the hospice does.

"They might not never know what North West Hospice does they just want good value for money, but, the people who donate to us, 9 times out of 10 will know what the hospice does and want to support it."

When people come in looking for half price on a sofa, Mary reminds them that the charity is trying to fundraise and the hospice helps and supports 700 families a year.

"They say, 'Is that where the money goes' and they say 'wow', and by the time they leave they're gone off with something under their arm and know a bit about the hospice.

For Mary, the work of the hospice and its care teams is something she has experienced first hand, with her late husband Anthony, having been in their care for ten months in 2008 before he sadly passed away.

Mary knows the benefits and unquantifiable care the hospice provides to families.

"The hospice takes you into their arms, not just the patient but the entire family." And that is why she works so tirelessly to ensure the hospice has funds to continue to provide such care.

Behind Mary there is a dedicated team of volunteers, some, like her, have benefited from its services and say they are just 'paying it forward', others have no ties to the charity whatsoever.

"There's two ladies upstairs, one does 25 hours a week, one does about 30, not because they have to, just that's the type of people they are, and they're brilliant at what they do. "

Volunteers are fundamental to the success of the shop as it helps keep the costs down and between the Sligo and Carrick-on-Shannon shops, Mary has in the region of 70 volunteers keeping the wheels in motion.

"Instead of 20c to the euro going to the hospice, we're up between 65c and 70c, which is huge for a charity."

Due to Covid-19, about 30 volunteers are currently not working in the shops, but, thanks to new policies and procedures those who have returned are working in a safe environment, with strict cleaning regulations in staff quarters in place at both shops.

Mary also explained that to ensure shoppers peace of mind and to prevent any dangers posed by Covid-19, when items of furniture are donated they are stored for three days and disinfected before they are displayed on the shop floor.

And, to ensure the safety of customers, first thing in the morning all door handles are sanitised at the shop, and staff keep an eye on items that are being touched by shoppers.

"We go around with our little spray. There's a foot pedal hand sanitising station at the door and we're keeping an eye on people wearing masks."

With everyone doing a spring clean during lockdown, the shop received a lot of donations and, thanks to the increase in people taking up sustainable shopping, the shop has experienced a wave of people looking to pick up second hand items to 'up cycle'.

"I sold a wardrobe today, it's not going to be a wardrobe, it's going into a lady's kitchen, she's going to chalk paint it and make it into a larder. People are very inventive."

Speaking about the social aspect of the sop in these 'socially distant' times, Mary describes the shops as a 'social hub', albeit at a distance these days.

"We can have 15 people in the shop here, in Carrick you can only have four, so the day of people hanging around, you can't there. Many a time before lockdown you could see ladies sitting on sofas just having a chat,. They might buy a piece of jewellery going out the door, and if they don't buy anything, they'll come back and buy it another day, and that's fine."

She adds, "Even with the volunteers there's great camaraderie."

Such was the volunteering spirit, Mary faced a problem of actually having to discourage volunteers from their work.

"Some of my volunteers ranging me asking me to let them back, just for a couple of hours here and there, and I said we can't until we have everything in place and we were 100% happy with it."

Mary went on to explain, "As precious as the Hospice is, and as badly as we needed the money, our volunteers are so precious, so we couldn't do it until we did it right."

Mary continued, "They just never cease to amaze me, the work they do. They are incredible."

"You'll be kept. If you want to come back we'll give you a job," she jokes to a man carrying a bedside locker out of the shop for his mother in-law.

She comments after the exchange, "Even just the craic with the customers is just so nice."

Mary compares the reopening of the shop to the shop's initial opening in October 2018.

"The first day we reopened we were holding our breath, it was like the first day all over again."

Back in October 2018 Mary suggested to the volunteers that they open for a few hours, on what turned out to be her husband's anniversary.

"I said nobody knows we're opening, we'll be fine."

It turns out, one innocuous social media post by a customer wishing the volunteers well saw the shop experience an unprecedented influx of customers.

"We were run off our feet all afternoon, we didn't look back since. This time for the reopening, I thought we'll either reopen and we'll have nobody, or we'll reopen and it will be crazy, but I did sort of know by the phone calls we were getting that a lot of people who were donating must then have money to be buying too."

Since reopening, Mary said they've had a great July and "August is looking good".

Proud of the wares on offer, from wedding dresses, to designer hats, and collectable ceramics, Mary is very candid when she talks of the shop.

"Because it's a charity shop it doesn't mean we're selling rubbish to people, and some people don't quite get that, but, we educate them as we go along."

This shopper couldn't resist a peruse on the shop floor and left with a backpack, some glassware and a cookbook - oh the eclectic delights of what is an Aladdin's Cave right in the heart of Sligo town!

And, if furniture is your thing, the Hospice shop currently has a sale on selected items, pick up a bargain and help this incredible service and charity continue to provide specialist care with compassion for loved ones when they need it most.


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