Since first being offered in the late 1960’s, no one has put court ordered community service on their bucket list. When faced with the alternative of jail, however, it’s an excellent choice. It’s a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
If you’re lucky enough to do your service at a thrift store, even better. It can be a rewarding experience for you and offers an opportunity for many benefits you might otherwise miss.
I’ve worked with over a thousand volunteers, and court appointed community service volunteers charged with everything from jay walking to DUI, with anywhere from 10 to 600 hours required, and from every walk of life.
Many have been some of the best volunteers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. It’s not uncommon for court ordered community service volunteers to get so much personal satisfaction from volunteering at a thrift store, they continue on long after they’ve completed their hours.
Unfortunately, you aren’t given a handbook explaining how this works and what to do. Too many people have their “Get Out of Jail Free” card revoked, often without notice, just because they weren’t informed . So here’s what you need to know.
The Court and the Non-Profit
Courts have a list of not-for-profit, (NFP), organizations they work with because they’re verified, and known to accept court appointed community service volunteers. Whether they assign you to a store or you pick your own, the court can’t order any NFP to accept, or keep you as volunteer. Nor can the NFP continue providing community service hours if the court suspends your assignment, (more about that later).
Thrift Stores and Court Appointed Community Service Volunteers
Thrift stores are in business to make money, like any other business, except their profits go to support their mission instead of an individual . They rely upon volunteers to keep the overhead down, and rarely do they have enough.
NFPs use court appointed community service volunteers because of the potential benefit to the business. But….if a volunteer is more of a liability than a benefit, the business neither needs or wants them. Because of the risk, not all thrift stores accept court-ordered volunteers, and many have stopped taking them.
Attitude Is Everything
Now you know why your attitude is the key to success, or a really bad alternative. You need to sell the idea to the store that you’ll be a benefit, and then consistently prove it.
Best attitude: “Hey, it happened, this is the situation, I’m here to help and make the best of it”
Too often I’ve seen people wait until the last minute to get their hours in, then something comes up and they run out of time. “Go Directly To Jail, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200”. Yes, it really happens all the time, to good people, even for the most minor offenses.
Because life can throw you curve balls, whether you have 20 hours or 600 to do, get them done as soon as possible, because it isn’t worth the gamble.
Note: If you don’t take this advice and run out of time, don’t expect your store supervisor can help by fudging a little. Providing false information is illegal.
If you’ve chosen the site, it’s your responsibility to verify it’s registered as a true non-profit. If you don’t, you could be doing your hours twice, or worse. All NFP thrift stores have to register as a 501c 3. For verification, click here IRS.
Treat the situation as you would a job interview, and research online:
- Full name of the store and organization
- What their mission is
- Phone Number
- Email address
- Store hours
- If available, a contact’s name and title
- Estimated travel time from your residence
You likely can’t choose your own hours, but need to know if your schedule can accommodate their needs. Don’t overlook prior responsibilities you have scheduled like doctor appointments or court appearances.
Calculate how long it will take you to finish your service with the hours you have available. Consider using vacation time so you don’t cut yourself short.
CAUTION: Some courts require you to do to so many hours per week. Even if this wasn’t made clear to you, your community service option will automatically be revoked if you don’t comply.
Court representatives often call the store, or come in unexpectedly to check your hours. It’s up to you to confirm your requirements!!
Make The Call
This is a necessary step. Even if you’ve received information from the court that you’ve been assigned to the store, it doesn’t guarantee the store knows about it, so don’t just show up.
The number one mistake people make is having someone else contact the store on their behalf. This indicates they aren’t taking their responsibility seriously. Would you have someone else call about a job interview for you?
The worst is when a parent calls for their teen. Not cool, and enough to get an automatic rejection.
Either ask for the contact person by name, or ask who oversees volunteers. When you reach that person, state simply why you’re calling, that you’ve received an order from the court to report to them, or you’re inquiring if they have an opening for a court-ordered volunteer.
Typical questions you’ll be asked:
- Your age – if you are under their minimum requirement they could reject you, or insist you have an adult volunteer with you.
- How many hours you need, and by when
- What the charges were for – There are two reasons for rejection at this point. First, if your charge was for theft, or a crime in conflict with their mission.
The second reason goes back to attitude. State clearly what you charges were. It’s not the time to either explain or complain. Unless it’s his/her first day on the job, they’ve heard it all before, and frankly they don’t care no matter how justified you are. Their only concern is how seriously you’ll take your volunteer responsibilities.
Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re doing great. Ask for an appointment to discuss the position. Ask if you’re accepted if you’ll start volunteering the same day. Don’t assume either way.
Whether you’ll start then, or another time, there are questions you should ask first.
- Are there documents you need to bring? You may be required to have proof of your court order. You can use a copy of a ticket, a letter you’ve received from the court, or any paper with documentation. If you need to have one and show up without it, you’ll be asked to leave until you get it.
- If you’re working more than a few hours, will you be getting a break for a meal? Should you bring food and a drink from home, or are there places to eat nearby?
- What’s the dress code? I guarantee it won’t be formal, but are jeans and T’s okay? Definitely don’t show up in anything that could be considered offensive by anyone.
Wear comfortable shoes! You may be walking or standing for a long time. Sandals are never a good idea, and many stores won’t allow them. There are too many bones in a foot and too many ways to break them. I’m speaking from experience.
You’re Ready To Start – Now What?
Again, attitude is everything. Everybody gets it; you’re meeting strangers who probably know why you’re there, and it could make you uncomfortable. But the last thing you want to do is be resentful, or defensive – definitely not the way to make friends or influence people.
Things You Need To Know
It’s always what you don’t know that can bite you from behind, so if no one volunteers the information, be sure to ask these questions:
- What’s the procedure if you’re sick or an emergency arises and you can’t come in for your shift?
- What’s the system for keeping track of your hours worked?
TIP: Even if they have a good system, don’t count on them alone, because it’s too important and stuff happens. Keep your own record of the dates and hours you work. It wouldn’t hurt to have a supervisor sign-off on it.
- What happens if they run out of things for you to do? Do they send you home?
- If you miss any time, either because of them or you, can the hours be made up?
- Do they ever close because of bad weather?
- Do they have any scheduled closings you should know about like holidays or for remodeling?
- What’s the chain of supervision? Who should you, and shouldn’t you, take directions from?
- What happens when you’ve completed your hours?
The court requires proof that you’ve completed your hours, and on time. This usually means a letter from the thrift store, on their letterhead, stating your name, hours completed, date of completion, and signed by a supervisor with their title.
Before you jump in, let your supervisor know of any physical restrictions you have. They need to know you shouldn’t be lifting furniture with a bad back, or standing for hours with a sprained ankle.
There are many tasks needed to run a thrift store, but which specific ones you’ll be doing will depend upon the particular needs of that store.
Below are very general tasks to give you an overview:
- Taking in donations
- Processing donations – this will vary by what the store sells. Clothes need checking, sorting, pricing, and hanging. Housewares need sorting, cleaning and pricing.
- Moving donations to the sales floor – there should be a place for everything, and everything needs to go in the right place, in the right way
- Assisting customers – greeting people, helping bag purchases, answering questions
- Assisting at the register
- Maintaining the sales floor merchandise – there is always a need for keeping merchandise straight and organized
- Cleaning all areas of the store – vacuuming, dusting, washing…the usual
- Special projects – from testing electronics to rearranging racks
If you have a particular interest, talent, or experience that might be useful, speak up! It may not be something they’re in need of, or they may be ecstatic to have your skill sets.
Things To Note
The following may seem obvious, but I’m mentioning them anyway, because so many people tend to overlook them and wind up with serious regrets.
When given a task:
- If the instructions aren’t clear, ask questions.
- Unless you’ve worked in a thrift shop for some time, never assume you know what to do without instructions.
- Treat your position as if it were a job. Because the thrift store is a business, you aren’t only assisting with running that business, you are representing them. Your actions should reflect that.
- Don’t use your cell phone unless it’s an emergency.
- When a customer asks you a question, find out the answer for them, or get someone else to help.
- If you’re entitled to a lunch break or other break, let your supervisor know when you leave, and when you come back.
- After completing a task, don’t just stand around. Let your supervisor know you’re ready for the next one. Or, if you know what to do next, just do it. This can also earn you the title of “Super Volunteer”.
Know Your Rights
Just because the court has mandated your community service, doesn’t mean you’ve become a second-class citizen. Know your rights below, and if you feel your rights have been violated, tell your store supervisor. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, tell your probation officer, or another member of the court.
- To be treated with respect, just as you treat others
- Treated fairly
- Not be assigned tasks outside physical restrictions
- Notified of any schedule changes a.s.a.p.
- Have access to the record of your hours worked for verification
- Have your personal information dealt with in a confidential manner
- Work in a safe and healthy environment
- Not be harassed or discriminated against because of gender, race, religion, age, or sexual orientation
If you make the best of your volunteering, you can have a very positive experience to learn, make new friends, help your community, and feel good about your contribution.
If you have any questions, write to me any time!