STONINGTON — Unexpected Treasures seems to be an ideal name for a shop where vintage wedding gowns are displayed alongside original oil paintings, designer handbags, costumes and fancy earrings and where wooden doll cradles, puzzles, books and games are peeking out from tables and shelves and around corners.

The shop, the newest addition at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center on Chase Street, occupies a cheery, roomy space on the center's second floor and sells "clothing of all sizes, housewares, jewelry, trinkets and toys," according to Executive Director Susan Sedensky.

"You never know what you'll find here," said Sedensky one afternoon last week as she gave a tour of the shop and introduced Barbara Hessling, who manages the shop.

Hessling, of Waterford, who worked at the Sears store at the Crystal Mall for close to 35 years, has spent her career in retail.

"It's a work in progress," said Hessling, who was standing next to a rack of men's woolen suits, displayed with a Nautica silk tie and a pair of brown and white leather saddle shoes. "We have some beautiful things ... some are brand new things."

"Here's a brand new Alex and Ani bracelet," said Hessling, who hand-stamped small pieces of brown paper to serve as earring holders for the dozens of pairs artistically displayed in the jewelry section.

Barbara's done a great job," said Sedensky. "She's really brought this place alive."

"I'm having fun," Hessling said with a smile.

Sometimes, Sedensky said as she walked toward a rack of evening dresses, a store will go out of business, then donate its remaining inventory to the center.

"I really want girls to know we have stylish, trendy dresses for sale," she said, "especially with homecoming dance season coming up."

"We still give away for free clothing to our clients," Sedensky added, "and we keep the costs intentionally low."

Most items cost between $1 and $3, she said.

"Anyone is welcome to shop or donate," she added. 

The shop was originally located in the basement, but once it was clear how much clothing there was, the board decided to move everything upstairs.

"It's a much better use of space," said Sedensky. "We have people in here all the time."

PNC Board member Mary-Ellen Sposato Rogers called the new venture "a phenomenal idea."

With items so reasonably priced, she said, people can buy decent wardrobes for work or play without breaking the bank.

And while the shop might eventually mean some income for the center — which offers a variety of social, educational, health and human services programs — Rogers said, it's the visibility factor that really counts.

"It's in a space where the social services are offered," she said, "so when people come into browse, they might notice we offer so many other services."

The center has a food pantry and living supplies section, offers rental and emergency utilities assistance to those in need, and maintains a Weekender Backpack Food Program. Each Friday, eligible children residing in Mystic, Stonington, North Stonington and Westerly are entitled to receive backpacks full of meals for the weekend.

Another program, called Keeping Babies Warm & Well, provides diapers, formula, car seats and baby supplies for families in need.

Rogers, a Westerly native, and certified executive career and life coach at the Berlin, Conn.-based Excellere Executive Coaching & Training, said she was impressed by the center on her first visit, when she was invited to moderate a board retreat. 

"It was a bleak, cold, January morning, and when I arrived at the center and saw all the people shopping and happily helping, it felt like I was going to visit someone at their home,"

"Sue Sedensky is a gift to the organization," Rogers added. "She is the gold standard."

"I sit on a number of boards," she continued, "but the spirit at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center ... the customer service ... the volunteers and the board ... they're unusual."

Gretchen Noonan and Arline McCullen of North Stonington, friends and retired schoolteachers, volunteers at the center for over a year, have helped out at Unexpected Treasures. 

"It's exciting," said Noonan, who responded to a volunteers needed sign posted at her church, the North Stonington Congregational. "I came down and signed up and I've been volunteering since."

"We wanted to give back in a good way," said McCullen.

With Unexpected Treasures up and running, Rogers said she has a new mission.

"I want people to know that the center is for Westerly people as well," she said. "I'd like to spread that word and get more people involved. We may be over the line, but we're just over the line and we're for here for people in Westerly too."

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