By Ben Olson
It’s easy to see why everyone loves Lois Miller. The smiling, outspoken founder of the Cottage Thrift Store is usually greeted by smiles and hugs wherever she goes, and for good reason; she deserves them.
Six years ago, at the tender young age of 82, Miller decided it was the perfect time to start up a thrift store to help benefit Panhandle Special Needs, Inc. (PSNI).
“The economy was taking a nose dive,” she recalled. “I said we should think about starting up a thrift store. We found this house and it was empty. I knew it was meant to be.”
Miller saw potential in the old home next to PSNI headquarters at 1410 N. Boyer Ave.
“It was real classy, unlike any other thrift store in town,” she said. “At first the property manager didn’t want to do it, so I told him I’d bring my lunch into his office and do a sit in. I was 82 years old and I didn’t know if I had that much time left.”
Six years later, at 88, Lois Miller is a standard fixture around the Cottage, both greeting customers and helping to rally the morale of volunteers.
“Working with Lois is like working with your best friend,” said volunteer Diane Newcomer. “She would never ask a volunteer to do something she wouldn’t do herself. She’s fair but not afraid to speak her mind, and make her reasons understood. There are no mistakes to Lois, just things that could be done differently for different outcomes.”
Miller walks me around the Cottage, showing off each room as if it were her own home. Built in 1910, the house used to belong to the supervisor of an experimental farm in the field to the east of it.
“I love this old house,” she said, beaming with pride. A unique feature of the Cottage is that each room features the items that would normally be found in that room. For example, walking through the kitchen, you’ll find dishes, appliances and flatware. In the bathroom—which Miller refers to as the “shop and go” room, you can find items for your own home bathroom. Upstairs, the library features an expansive collection of fiction and nonfiction books, as well as a whole room dedicated to children’s books and toys.
Miller noted that the Cottage is always on the lookout for more volunteers and of course, they are always interested in donations.
“We don’t take mattresses or televisions,” said Miller. “We also don’t take clothing. It smells funny, no matter what you do with it. Everything else for home and garden we accept gladly. We’re looking for quality home treasures.”
As we walk throughout the Cottage, Miller points out that she is not alone in making the Cottage function so well.
“This place wouldn’t exist without the volunteers,” said Miller. Currently, there are about 29 volunteers who donate their time to the thrift store.
Volunteers like Leslie Hall, who donates her time because, “I have a special place in my heart for people with special needs. I came in here and fell in love, it’s the cutest thrift store you’ve ever seen.”
Across the parking lot, Miller introduces me to everyone at PSNI, starting at the work services program. Workers with PSNI are called “participants” or “clients” and are responsible for the janitorial work at the Cottage, as well as working in other fields both on and off site.
“I love the clients,” said Miller. “I’ve been working with the developmentally disabled for 45 years and I absolutely love it. It’s what I was meant to do.”
According to Miller, she believes the world has become a much better place in relation to those with special needs.
“When you set limits for people, they’ll never surpass them,” she said.
One of the greatest aspects of the Cottage is that every dollar earned goes into the PSNI general fund. Over six years, dozens of volunteers have donated close to 12,000 hours of their time to keep the Cottage operating. Because of income generated by the Cottage, the work services wing of PSNI is still in operation today.
“This program was in jeopardy of being shut down,” said Jean Post, one of the directors of PSNI. “Thanks to Lois and her volunteer friends, the income from the Cottage saved the work services program.”
Miller made her way through the work services room, with the workers all hugging her and treating her like a Mother Superior figure. Some were shredding documents, taking precautions to remove staples that might damage the shredding machines. Others, like Dewey Horowitz, filled bags with wood chips for the local company Lignetics.
“We’re always looking for something new for our participants to do,” said Caryl Abbott, manager of work services for PSNI. “They do such a great job, the product is always correct.”
At 88 years old, Lois Miller shows no signs of slowing down. She’s always on hand to lend a word of advice, or listen to a story, or simply offer up a smile to someone who might be having a rough day.
“She’s a remarkable person,” said Newcomer. “She’s proof that age is only a number on paper. Lois has never let her age slow her down. If she can do a job, she does it!”