The Mustard Seed of Cape May County started out in 2007 as an outreach program of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Stone Harbor, operating a small thrift shop in Rio Grande to raise money to help struggling residents.

Like its namesake, it has grown from a small effort into a strong nonprofit corporation that has donated some $500,000 to more than 20 groups in the county ranging from food pantries to school programs.

"We started out so small and now the thrift store takes up half of the shopping center," Mustard Seed president Shellie Tibbetts, of Stone Harbor, said as she showed off recent acquisitions at the This 'n That store in the Village Shoppes center off Route 47.

Run by a board of trustees, the Mustard Seed operates with both employees and volunteers. Tibbetts said they have been very successful both with the donations given to the store, and its popularity with customers. The location is large enough to be set up almost like a small department store, with separate sections for children, men, women, and furnishings.

Its most recent endeavor is Project Shabby Chic in which workers take items that might otherwise have been thrown away and turn them into something new and marketable.There are hand-painted vases and lamps, planters, wind chimes and and bird feeders made of cups and saucers.

All proceeds from the Shabby Chic items will be used to fund arts projects for children in the county, and since June almost $1,000 has been raised.

Employee Jennifer Morris, of Lower Township, sponge-painted vases and store manager Debbie Smith, of Cape May Court House, made bowls from old vinyl records, molding them using the heat from her fire pit at home. Items typically cost $10 or less.

"We keep items in the back, and the staff just comes in and takes what they think they can use," Smith said. "Sometimes you just see things that will go together."

Smith developed the program, then worked with the staff to decide how to spend the money they raise.

"We wanted something that would help children be creative," she said. Grants will be provided to schools or other nonprofit programs that work with children in the arts.

The store provides glue, paint and other supplies, but the workers all donate their time to create the new items. Tibbetts said a side benefit has been a reduction in waste.

"We never fill the Dumpster," she said.

The group's success has allowed Mustard Seed to expand its mission beyond just meeting the basic needs of the poor in Cape May County. In August, the group donated $15,000 toward a program at Atlantic Cape Community College's Cape May Court House campus that provided nine students with laptop computers and printers they will be allowed to keep if they graduate on time.

"That was such a generous grant," said Patricia Gentile, dean of the Cape May County campus."They really bought into the concept."

She said Mustard Seed members are also working with the college as mentors for the students to help them be successful.

"They are an inspiration," she said. "This wasn't just about getting computers, it was about giving people the tools to be successful."

Mustard Seed vice president Flo O'Donnell, of Cape May Court House, and member Randall Bauer, of Stone Harbor, attended the computer presentation. Bauer told the recipients that the donation was their way of showing their faith in the students' ability to succeed.

The Woodbine School District received a $10,000 grant which the school used to buy uniforms and start a school store, superintendent Lynda Anderson Towns said. She said many families do not have money to buy school uniforms, and the grant allows the district to buy new shirts and pants, and resell gently used ones through the store, which also teaches students math and marketing skills.

"We definitely never would have had a school store without the grant," she said.

She said funds were also used to help finance visits from a mobile dentist, and to buy bike helmets for children to bike to school. They also bought some grocery store gift cards for families over the summer when the children do not get meals at school.

"We really stretched those dollars quite a bit," Towns said.She said the Mustard Seed members wanted very specific information about how the money would be used, and followedup to see their progress.

"I met with them, and they came out and visited the school," she said. "They are very thorough."

Tibbetts said while the thrift store funds their grants, it also provides very affordable clothing and items for area residents. She said they are always in need of good men's clothing and shoes.

"In this economy, the store is a Godsend for people," she said.

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