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A dedicated volunteer

WHAT makes a woman of distinction? What qualities and abilities make her unique? Perhaps it has to do with being in the right place at the right time.

WHAT makes a woman of distinction?

What qualities and abilities make her unique? Perhaps it has to do with being in the right place at the right time. Gladys Johnston of the Mount Seymour United Church Thrift Shop would say she's one member of a team. She would be right.

Yet without Johnston's vision and commitment, there would be no Thrift Shop.

This year, North Vancouver's Gladys Johnston received the Judges' Choice Award at the annual YWCA's Women of Distinction awards ceremony.

Johnston's road to the podium began in eastern Canada. In 1960, she and two girlfriends, all newly minted nurses, crammed themselves into an Austin Minx and headed west. Their journey was uneventful, except for the nine flat tires. "We only had to fix one of them ourselves," laughs Johnston. Vancouver became home base for Gladys. She got a job at Vancouver General Hospital, married and settled in North Vancouver's Mount Seymour area.

Johnston raised her family, worked on her garden and joined Mount Seymour United Church. She volunteered at Burrardview elementary, taking courses through the school board so that she could help children with learning disabilities.

One day, 21 years ago, Johnston attended a church garage sale. Marveling at the sheer quantity of stuff, she joined the browsers, wandering past mountains of clothes, heaps of toys, piles of electronic equipment and what seemed like acres of household furnishings donated, cast off, contributed by people just like the Johnstons.

Not everyone was browsing, she noticed. Some people looked each item over carefully, paid particular attention to price tags. They exchanged one winter weight jacket for another, checked the size on a pair of skates and

then the price.

In every community, no matter how affluent, there are people living in need. Johnston looked for a way to make this enormous recycled resource available to people who need it and found it at her church.

"We started in 1990, Jean Roberts and I, just the two of us in a storage room at the church that we shared with the choir's robes," recalls Johnston. Their goals: to provide an affordable retail outlet and to engage and unite the community.

As time went on, and word spread, the Thrift Shop expanded. More space was needed to store and display the constant stream of stuff, more volunteers to sort and refurbish and price.

Bicycle repairs, appliance overhauls, doll refurbishment - there's a volunteer for that. Volunteers set aside items for Christmas or the antique and collectible sale. They funnel clothing to other communities in need, as close as Surrey, as distant as the Phillippines.

Recycling and re-using are fundamental at the Thrift Shop. "Why discard these items that can do so much good, more than we even realize?" asks Johnston.

With more than 70 volunteers, some who have been with Johnston since the beginning, keeping the Thrift Shop humming, Johnston oversees those with special needs. These members of the team are gaining valuable work experience.

While not all volunteers are members of the church, everyone is there to help and to improve the lot of others - and to have fun in the doing. No matter how much or how little time a volunteer can give, their contribution is welcomed. Volunteer Anne De Vent says, "It's a wonderful support system of people and also a great social benefit. Strong bonds of friendship are made here."

"Gladys has created a caring community of talented individuals who regularly reach out and make our world a better place. She has created meaningful work for people. She is teaching us to be better stewards. Through our association with Gladys and with the Thrift Shop, we become better human beings," says volunteer Katherine McKay.

Gladys Johnston, selfdescribed reluctant nominee, has devoted her time, her energy and her life to helping others.

After 21 years of being at the helm of the Thrift Shop and its volunteers, the time had come for her community to recognize that this quiet dynamo is truly a woman of distinction.

The Mount Seymour United Church Thrift Shop, 1200 Parkgate Avenue, is open Thursdays from 2 to 8 p.m. Donations are accepted through the week. For more information, call 604.929.1336.