WESTERLY — The hot deals shoppers have been finding for years at the Jonnycake Center of Westerly Thrift Store will be available in much cooler conditions starting this summer.

Workers were expected to put the finishing touches on the installation of an air conditioning system in the store at the social service agency's Industrial Drive headquarters last week. During previous summers the store had to be closed when the temperature hit 90 degrees or higher.

"Finally after moving to Westerly in 2007, 12 years later, we're getting air conditioning in our thrift store. It's huge for us because the thrift store is responsible for over 50 percent of our annual operating revenue," said Lee Eastbourne, Jonnycake Center of Westerly executive director.

The center is budgeted to take in $800,000 in thrift store revenue this year, a significant part of the center's $1.5 million annual operating budget. At least $20,000 was lost last summer and a total of about $100,000 over 12 years because of store closures in hot weather, according to the center's estimates.

"We readily admit we should have done this earlier," Eastbourne said.

Money derived from sales at the thrift shop, which is open to the public, helps pay for staff salaries and other overhead costs for the agency, which offers a wide variety of services to individuals, children, and families in need in Westerly, Charlestown, Hopkinton, and Richmond. Services include a food pantry and other food assistance, heat and rent assistance, job training, and domestic violence advocacy. Services are offered either directly by the center or in partnership with other agencies.

"We're a local organization and we hope individuals will continue to support local nonprofits, ourselves included, and help us continue to grow and serve the Westerly community," Eastbourne said.

The center has applied for a grant and hopes to renovate and expand the store and its back office receiving area early next year. More than 20,000 items were available for sale in the  store, according to a recently completed inventory, Eastbourne said. "From silverware to furniture, clothing and shoes and  95 percent of the items are $2 and $3 or less," he said.

The air conditioning system is one of several initiatives undertaken at the center since Eastbourne was named executive director on July 1, 2017. He previously served as the center's development director and before that as a member of the board.

Soon after Eastbourne started his current job, the agency began a weekend Power Pack Program, which provides children who qualify for free and reduced price lunches at school with breakfast and lunch on weekends. The program, which started by serving Westerly children, will expand to Charlestown, Hopkinton, and Richmond this fall. The center also provides meals to children in need during school vacations under a different program.

A homebound food assistance program also began under Eastbourne's leadership. "We started to notice that some of the clients we had been seeing on a regular basis were no longer coming to the center," he said.

Upon closer investigation, the center's staff found that some of its clients could no longer get to the center because of transportation problems. Under the program, 20 households receive a week's worth of food once per month for every member of the household.

The center also started offering legal services. Board president Janne Reisch, a practicing lawyer, meets every other week with clients from the center who need help with civil cases such as childcare problems, landlord tenant disputes, and employment issues. When necessary, Reisch accompanies clients through the entire legal process, including court appearances.

"A private lawyer can very easily be $200 to $250 and our clients simply can't pull that money together," Eastbourne said.

Last summer the center used a $45,000 Community Development Block Grant to revamp the front stairs of its entrance and the  ramp used by people with disabilities. Additionally, since Eastbourne has been executive director, the center has put a retirement plan in place for employees. "It allows us to keep our talented staff ... and reach a higher caliber of candidate when we have openings," he said.

The retirement program might be expanded, in the future, to offer employees a 403-b plan, the nonprofit equivalent of a 401-k. The cent has about 10 full-time and 24 part-time employees. A team of 100 volunteers is nearly always active. The number of volunteers jumps to about 250 during busier times.

Also in the works are an upgrade of the center's information technology infrastructure and a switch to cloud-based computing. The camera security system will also be expanded.

"We've done a huge amount in two years ... and we're seeing an increased need here at the center," Eastbourne said.

Westerly Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau worked closely with Eastbourne as the Power Back lunch program was implemented. "Lee, himself, is a tremendous asset to the agency and to the community and the Jonnycake Center provides a tremendous service to families," Garceau said. "These kids walk through our doors every morning in need and the center helps address those needs."

The center's client base grows by 10 to 15 households every month. The needs change according to the season. In the summer, some of the center's clients have to give up coastal rentals when the rent soars because of the summer vacation market. They often move into motels or campgrounds and then seek more permanent housing in the fall, Eastbourne said.

Shifts in the economy at large are reflected in the demand for local social services.

"What we see is a little bit more of the shrinking of the middle class. The wealthy getting wealthier but salaries and pay hasn't increased at the same rate as expenses for others," Eastbourne said.

It is important, Eastbourne said, for the public to understand who the center serves.

"The clients we see here are the working poor. Many are working two or three jobs. But because they are low-paying jobs they can't quite make their income meet their expenses at the end of the month, so there's that little need that the Jonnycake Center helps them meet," Eastbourne said.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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