Ann Arbor's Kiwanis International Celebrates a Century of Giving with Record Impact
By Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
“Don’t worry! There’s enough inside for everyone,” a volunteer traffic controller tells an impatient driver hoping to beat the crowds at the Kiwanis Thrift Sale early one Saturday morning. His car is one of dozens snaking slowly along North Stabler Road toward the former Sheridan Books plant, which now houses sales of household items, furniture, books, clothes, appliances, tools, workout equipment, and even fine art.
Although the scene is typical for Friday and Saturday mornings, this early summer day is particularly busy, since the Ann Arbor chapter of Kiwanis International is celebrating its centennial as an organization dedicated to improving the health and welfare of children and families. WOMC, 104.3, out of Detroit, has set up its sound equipment and is broadcasting by the time the first wave of customers appears.
“Our slogan is ‘serving the children of the world,’” explains Steven Hiller, president of the Ann Arbor chapter, as he watches van owners unloading donations and browsers touring the enormous facility.
In the past eight years alone—despite two years of Covid shutdown—the local organization raised $6,292,784 from its twice-weekly thrift store sales, and last year alone it donated a whopping $1,084,424 to community organizations—about 30 percent more than any previous year.
But that’s not the limit of the organization’s impact. Kiwanis members also delivered nearly 7,000 Meals on Wheels, participated in Mott Children’s Hospital programs, sent members to Haiti to work with the Haiti Nursing Foundation, and supported UNICEF’s efforts to eliminate Maternal Neonatal Tetanus (MNT) and Iodine Deficiency Disorders (IDD) around the world. In addition, individual members run student leadership programs, support the Salvation Army bellringing campaign, fund scholarships for Washtenaw students, donate and deliver winter clothing as part of its Warm the Children program.
The Ann Arbor chapter has grown so quickly and effectively that board members decided they were ready to hire its first paid director. The position supervises the staff of 17, the volunteer crew of 175, volunteer committees, and the countless millions of pounds of donations that now arrive at the gigantic 123,000-square-foot center every year.
After a national search, Michigan native and MSU graduate Mary Buck moved into the director’s office just in time to celebrate the Kiwanis centennial.
“Actually, we became the 457th chapter in 1921, but Covid postponed our observances for two years,” Hiller explains, adding with a smile, “With Mary, life will be easier for the president. She brings a great deal of experience working in this 501-C3 environment, and she brings fresh ideas that will help us grow.”
Buck previously directed a seniors-helping-seniors nonprofit in Santa Cruz called Grey Bears, which also had a thrift center, as well as 48 staff members, two recycling yards, and 500 volunteers. “The goals and needs are different here,” Buck says, offering a tour of the center. “Grey Bears were supporting the health of seniors. The Kiwanis focus is on families and the children of Washtenaw County.”
As she surveys the first salesroom, she adds, “I’m impressed with the way Kiwanis is using this tremendous facility on behalf of the entire community. “It serves as a polling place; the Red Cross offers blood drives here; Mott Hospital held a retreat here; and the extra space is rented to a textbook distribution company.”
“Those revenues allowed us survive during the Covid shut-down,” Hiller adds.
Hiller has been a Kiwanis member since 2004, when he was working in the Washtenaw prosecutor’s office. “I wanted to get involved in an organization with strong goals and a commitment to give back to the community,” he says. By the end of his first meeting, he knew he’d found what he was looking for. “This is a very rewarding organization.”
Although its membership has dropped from 185 in 2004 to 141 in 2023, sales revenues from the thrift shop have skyrocketed to the point that “The scope is now too wide to rely on volunteer help alone,” Hiller says. In its first 92 years, Ann Arbor’s Kiwanis donated $5.7 million to the community. That figure nearly doubled in the last eight years alone, despite the two-year Covid shutdown.
When the thrift sales center re-opened in April 2022, the line of customers stretched all the way to Jackson Road. “There was a lot of excitement, a lot of pent-up demand,” Hiller says. “It was very gratifying.”
“We’re intending to build on that excitement as we serve our donors, customers, and community,” Buck adds. “We’re helping people recycle and reuse good quality items. And we’re able to have a significant impact on families in this community.”
They’re also helping both donors and customers at important stages of their lives: when they set up housekeeping, downsize, move elderly parents, or help furnish homes for college students, recent graduates, or families dealing with tragedies.
“This is a gigantic beehive of activity,” says a volunteer proudly as she scurries through the enormous warehouse and salesrooms. Away from the public eye, Kiwanis volunteers spread out to work in large sections devoted to clothing, clocks, appliances, glassware, housewares, workout equipment, books, children’s toys, furniture, and sales desks that handle Black Friday-sized crowds of customers.
The quantity of goods offered for sale, or being prepared for sale, is staggering. They are shuttled to specific areas where skilled workers with open tool boxes fix clocks and appliances, ensuring all are in excellent working order. Elsewhere, clothing is being washed, pressed, and hung by the volunteers that cheerfully swarm throughout the facility.
“We are very fortunate to have 175 volunteers (some aren’t even Kiwanis members!), and they average 1,000 hours of volunteer time every week,” Buck marvels. “Many come in on our off days to sort and hang merchandise. They are very committed.”
When the tour reaches the book department, where mountains of books and boxes are stacked to the lofty ceiling, Hiller explains that Kiwanis works with literacy groups and schools, to donate books. Kiwanis also opens its doors early to needy families with vouchers who are welcome to choose everything from mattresses to clothing, toys, household goods, and furniture.
Proceeding through the facility, he opens a door that reveals an astounding collection of African art—masks, figures, sculptures, weapons. “A university professor died and his family didn’t know what to do with his collection, so they donated it to us,” Hiller says. Volunteers are researching the collection’s history and will offer it at a private sale.
“Every so often we are given items that require research and outside sales,” Hiller says. “We’re very grateful.”
Kiwanis International was founded in 1915, by Detroit community leaders who outlined five objectives: to “focus on the human and spiritual rather than the material values of life;” encourage daily living of the Golden Rule; promote “higher social, business, and professional standards; develop “a more intelligent, aggressive, and serviceable citizenship; encourage enduring friendships; and build better communities with “righteousness, justice, patriotism, and good will.”
Six years later, sixty local philanthropists established the Ann Arbor, and immediately began fundraising by holding thrift sales throughout the community, often accompanied by food sales. Eventually they established a sales center in downtown Ann Arbor, at 200 S. First Street.
The chapter’s impact grew dramatically in 2015, when Kiwanis bought the former Sheridan Books property on N. Staebler Road. At first, volunteers divided their efforts between the two locations “But that quickly became unmanageable, so we moved everything out here,” Hiller says.
Thanks to the revenue that Kiwanis receives from a book distribution business that rents a portion of the gigantic warehouse space, the organization kept its community obligations flowing during the Covid shutdown. For the first nine months, Kiwanis continued to accept donations of goods, until the center ran out of space. “There was a huge pent-up demand when we finally opened our doors again,” Hiller says.
Currently, the average age of Kiwanis members is 75—"I’m firmly in the vanguard of the youth movement,” the recently retired Hiller says, grinning. “But we want to change our demographic and recruit younger people who can take on leadership roles. What we have built here can go on for generations—and we have new and exciting plans for the future.”
Among those plans is the Kiwanis Environmental Education Preserve (KEEP). The seven acres adjacent to the Kiwanis Center were purchased and earmarked for an environmental preserve on “Kiwanis North.” Perhaps as early as the fall, a pavilion will be constructed for use by club members, local organizations, and student groups.
“I have been so surprised and impressed with the amount of support Kiwanis receives from the community and gives back to the community,” Mary Buck says. “Kiwanis has a 100-year legacy of service—a legacy to preserve and even improve upon. I’m excited about this partnership and the potential we have for recruiting volunteers from different community organizations, so people understand what our membership does.”
The Kiwanis Thrift Sale Center opens on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Donations can be delivered between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays, but drivers are also available to pick up items six days a week. For additional information, or to volunteer, contact Steven Hiller at email@example.com
or see the website at www.a2kiwanis.org.
Photos by Len Lofstrom
Cynthia Furlong-Reynolds is a journalist whose byline has appeared in more than 50 newspapers and magazines, she has written nine histories, a dozen picture books, a series of early readers based upon a mouse’s adventures (Oliver’s Travels), a young adult novel, countless articles, and dozens of life stories for private individuals. Under the auspices of the Michigan Humanities Council, she regularly leads Prime Time family literacy programs in underprivileged neighborhoods, from the farming community of Hartland to downtown urban sites, among them Detroit, Ypsilanti, Garden City, and Down River.