July 11, 2014 by Maren Larsen
Where else can you find Mr. Rogers on vinyl, sky blue corduroy skinny jeans, a vintage first aid manual, a Star Wars chess set and help for those diagnosed with AIDS in one location?
All can be found at Philly AIDS Thrift, the quirky result of four Philadelphians’ passion to help those diagnosed with HIV or AIDS.
“We’re longtime AIDS activists, we’re lovers of junk. We put the two together and this is what we came up with,” Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou, manager and co-founder of Philly AIDS Thrift, said.
She started the store in 2005, along with Tom Brennan, Mike Wilson and Peter Heiler. The four met during the ‘90s while working at South Street’s Thrift for AIDS. The store closed and they parted ways, but nine years ago, Heiler called up Kallas-Saritsoglou with the hopes of starting another thrift store.
Kallas-Saritsoglou, a thrift store enthusiast since her teens, was in. And ever since, staff and volunteers have worked seven days a week to sell enough 50-cent action figures and $3 neon blazers to raise over $850,000.
“We used to hang out at gay bars when we were teenagers, because, you know, they would let us in. And we would dance, and we were total punks at the time,” she said. “Back then it wasn’t hip and cool, but we used to go to thrift stores.”
When AIDS hit the community, Kallas-Saritsoglou saw it firsthand.
“It was pretty devastating watching the people that were surrounding us wasting away. We didn’t know what was going on. We were watching people die right in front of our faces,” she said.
So the founders decided to make a difference by channeling their passion for secondhand fashion. The store’s merchandise is entirely donated. In fact, they receive more donations than they can sell. Some of the store’s 15 staff members and 130 volunteers spend their time working the register while others dig for treasures in the mountains of garbage-bagged donations on the third floor. Those clothes that don’t make the cut are sold as weight for pennies on the pound.
All profits outside of operating costs, currently about $20,000 each month, go to the AIDS Fund, host of the AIDS Walk Philly each fall. The AIDS Fund then distributes the money to 29 AIDS service organizations in the Philadelphia area.
But that’s not all the store does for AIDS. Philly AIDS Thrift provides vouchers to the organizations benefitted by the AIDS Fund to give to people suffering from HIV or AIDS.
“There’s someone who is HIV-positive, and maybe they’re really kind of hurting financially, maybe they don’t have a job, maybe they just got out of jail,” Kallas-Saritsoglou said. “When they’re approved for the vouchers, they bring them here to the store and then we give them $50 worth of clothing, kitchenware and things like that to kind of help them out a little bit.”
In addition, every Friday, the Mazzoni Center sets up their free, rapid HIV testing center outside the store.
“[AIDS has] always been kind of close to my heart, and it’s not going away,” Kallas-Saritsoglou said. “Thank God we have the medicines and whatnot, but people are still getting infected, and people are still dying from it. It’s something that we care about.”
Philly AIDS Thrift is looking to expand to another location in the future and possibly begin picking up donations directly from donors. For now, the store buzzes with activity — what Kallas-Saritsoglou describes as “pure joy.”
“It just makes sense to us to be in an environment that we love,” she said. “Also, to be able to bring in other people to help us do that and be able give the money away for a cause that’s important.”