Giving from the Heart: Vi Kaiser and the OLu Thrift Shop
By Jenelyn Cunningham Russo ‘88
Long before Lutheran High School of Orange County opened its doors in 1973, there were teams of people who gave tirelessly and diligently of their time and talents in an effort to bring the idea of a local Lutheran high school to life. Beginning in 1961, a group of Booster Club and Women’s Auxiliary members gathered with the purpose of raising funds to help cover the costs associated with building the new high school. Ice cream socials, rummage sales, luncheons, and fashion shows were just a few of the events planned in an effort to provide the necessary funding. As a result of their diverse efforts, the idea of opening a thrift shop emerged – a place where a variety of donated goods could find new homes, and in turn, help raise money for the high school.
In May of 1969, Orange Lutheran High School’s first thrift shop opened at its original location on Chapman Avenue in Orange. Staffed by paid managers and volunteers from Association churches, the Thrift Shop became an integral part of serving both the community and the high school. There was even a group of ladies who started a Monday night volunteer “work crew,” time each week where they would sort and organize donated clothing and housewares while their husbands watched Monday Night Football at home. The Thrift Shop’s success led to the opening of a second location in Westminster in 1975. From 1970 to 1976, funds raised by the stores for Orange Lutheran High School topped $100,000. But despite their efforts, a lack of consistent volunteers led to the closure of both storefronts. The Westminster location closed soon after it opened, and the original Orange location shuttered in the late 1980s. Fast-forward to the mid-’90s, and the Thrift Shop got a second chance. With funds raised earmarked specifically for student financial assistance, the Orange Lutheran High School Thrift Shop opened its doors again in 1994 at 686 N. Tustin Street in Orange.
The newest version of the Thrift Shop did so well that by 2000, space became limited, and expansion necessary. God had a plan in mind and provided an answer to prayer, as the building just to the south of the store’s location became available for sale. The owner, a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Orange, gave the Thrift Shop the first opportunity to purchase the building, which it did. By the end of 2000, the Thrift Shop moved into its larger home at 676 N. Tustin Street in Orange, where it remains today. The heart of the Thrift Shop is the more than 125 volunteers who give of their time each week at the store to serve the community and raise funds for Orange Lutheran High School student financial aid. As when the Thrift Shop first began, many of the store’s volunteers come from Association churches. Sometimes frequent shoppers find their way back to the store to give of their time. Additionally, Orange Lutheran families who receive financial aid work at the store as well, with many of them staying on to become regular volunteers. They are all led by Thrift Shop manager Suzanne Sotelo, who has been in the role for nearly 10 years. “It’s fun, and there’s a lot of great fellowship, but it’s hard work,” says Sotelo. “So the people that tend to stick with it are the ones who have a connection, whether it’s through their church or through the high school. They seem to be in it for the long haul.”
Among the many who serve at the Thrift Shop, there remains a small group of volunteers that has been present since the beginning. One of those volunteers is Vi Kaiser, an original member of the Women’s Auxiliary who has dedicated her time and energy to the store for 50 years. With a love for the mission of Orange Lutheran High School and the families it serves, Kaiser worked as many as four full days each week at the Thrift Shop over the 50 years, including Monday nights with the “work crew,” which still meets each week with a few of the original Auxiliary members. After recently celebrating her 92nd birthday, Kaiser decided to step away from being a regular volunteer at the store. In honor of her lifetime of service to the Thrift Shop and as a thank you for giving so generously of her time, Sotelo and the staff threw Kaiser a retirement party in January. Despite her departure, Kaiser’s commitment to advancing the ideals of Christian character and education remains a model for those whose lives she has touched. “It’s such an inspiration and motivation to everyone else to see what a life of service looks like,” says Sotelo. “There are some incredible people here at the Thrift Shop, and Vi is an integral part of that.”
Open every Monday through Saturday*, from 10 am to 4 pm, the Thrift Shop sells a variety of items, including clothing and shoes, household goods, toys, books, electronics, jewelry, collectibles, and more. The original Tustin Street space next door is still occupied by the store and sells mainly large-scale furniture items. Donations are received each day** from 10 am to 2 pm, and since 2000, a truck has been available for larger pickups and deliveries***. The process of sorting through all the donated items and preparing them for sale is not an easy task, but Sotelo sees the commitment of the volunteers and knows they are dedicated to working for the greater good. “You look at people like Vi who work so hard and put in so many hours, and she’s doing it out of the sheer goodness of her heart and her love for the Lord,” says Sotelo. “When you see people who are dedicated to the Lord and their community and dedicated to these students getting a Christian education, it’s very inspiring and motivating.”
The time spent by younger volunteers who have worked alongside original Auxiliary members such as Kaiser is invaluable, as they are able to gain knowledge of the history and mission of the Thrift Shop, and then carry on its legacy and purpose for the next generation of Lancer students. “We are the face of the high school in the community,” says Sotelo. “There may be a lot of people who don’t know anything about Orange Lutheran High School or what they stand for or what they do. But when they come in here, they get a taste of it and a feel for it.” For the past two years, the Thrift Shop has been named in the top three on the Orange County Register’s Best of OC List, which is a significant accomplishment for a store with just one location. Last year alone, more than $450,000 of tuition assistance was raised for Orange Lutheran students through the store, as the Thrift Shop continues to fulfill its original mission – to meet the needs of families who desire a Christian education for their child. “Without the Thrift Shop, there might be kids who can’t go to Orange Lutheran who want to go to Orange Lutheran,” says Sotelo. “For any child who wants to receive a Christian education, the school really wants to be able to provide that. And we support that in a big way.”
*As of June 15, 2020, the Thrift Shop is open for shopping on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 10 am – 4 pm.
**As of June 15, 2020, donations are accepted on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays only from 10 am – 2 pm.
***As of June 15, 2020, furniture pickups and donations are suspended until further notice.