Church Thrift Store Becomes Community Hub
For a New Jersey church, meeting the spiritual and emotional needs of their community starts by meeting the physical needs.For the community of Toms River, New Jersey, the Dressed and Blessed thrift store meets more than tangible needs, it meets emotional and spiritual needs as well.
Deena M. Gifford was saved at the age of 26 and decided to attend Zion Bible College, now Northpoint Bible College, determined not to be a “Bible college bride.” However, when she met Paul Gifford, a teen challenge graduate who was also attending Zion Bible College, she heard wedding bells.
In 2005, after graduating and getting married, the Giffords returned to minister in the same church where Deena had found Christ just a few years earlier, First Assembly of God Church in Toms River, New Jersey. There, the Giffords took on the role of both associate pastor and youth pastor, positions in which they would serve for the next four years. Then, in 2009, the Giffords were voted in as senior pastors after the church spent over a year looking for the right fit.
With only a few years of experience as senior pastors, in 2012, the Giffords found themselves leading both their church and the community through hurricane Sandy. This superstorm, documented as the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, was the fourth most expensive storm in the country, causing more than $70 billion in damages according to National Geographic.
“Although we were right in the area of New Jersey that experienced damage and power outages, our church only lost power for about a minute,” Gifford says.
Seeing the great need in the area, the church opened a food pantry and allowed people to come get supplies. They also used the church to serve meals to those who remained without power after the storm devastated the area.
“As things returned to normal, people just kept donating so we decided to keep the food pantry going,” says Gifford.
A few years later, the church was continuing to fund the food pantry but also began praying about what to do with a small building in the back of the church’s property.
“I realized we had a lot of clothes being donated and suddenly God gave me this idea about opening a thrift store in the building behind the church. I felt like it could also be a way to help carry the cost of the food pantry,” states Gifford.
Gifford asked her dad to help her renovate the small building and the labor of love began.
“Her idea was great and I knew it was going to be wonderful for the community,” states John Casciano, 75, Gifford’s father.
Casciano states that as soon as he heard what his daughter felt led to do, he grabbed his tools, packed his trunk, and went straight to work. Within a year, the front room of the thrift store, Dressed and Blessed, was up and running.
“Although we had originally planned to cover the costs of the food pantry, it quickly evolved into so much more,” recalls Gifford.
As Gifford continued to follow the vision God had given her, she watched the thrift store grow in size and in its community impact.
The store, which started as one front room in 2016, has now grown into 5 of the rooms of the building and the funds reach into many different areas of the Toms River community.
From the sales of donated items, Gifford and her volunteers fund the food pantry, stock it weekly with fresh bread and produce, and make 100 meals for another community organization to deliver each week to the homeless.
Additionally, Gifford works with the local pregnancy center, domestic violence shelter, and the county’s Department of Child and Family Services.
“We provide the community organizations with whom we partner with vouchers so that women in the shelters or kids and families in the foster care system can come in and shop for free for the things that they need,” says Gifford.
Dressed and Blessed has also been able to financially minister to those who need temporary emergency housing, apartment deposits, and other costly needs thanks to the overwhelming blessing that God has bestowed on the store.
She states that people from the community also come in simply to sit in a place where they feel the peace of God.
“We see people come in who aren’t even there to shop for anything,” she says. “We have become a community safe haven and, through that, we have seen salvations and healings right there in the shop.”
Gifford says that the most amazing part of the ministry is that she gets to see people, every day, encounter the love of God.
“You can’t ignore the loving and warm atmosphere from the minute you walk through the front door,” Casciano states.
The food pantry, which is still in operation, feeds around 70 families per week while the thrift store serves countless more.