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Citizen of the Week: Rose Brandau McGee

Serving vets and saving vets in Mayfair's Camouflage Rhino Thrift Store

With America winding down two wars and flirting with other military interventions around the globe, Philadelphia’s Veterans Multi-Service Center in 2013 was overwhelmed with donations to help returning vets get back on their feet. The problem was where to put it all.

Suits donated through radio DJ John DeBella’s annual Veterans Radiothon hung from pipes in the dimly lit, inaccessible-by-elevator fifth floor of the center’s Old City building. Other clothes lay in high piles on tables. Shoes were stacked in the basement. Furniture was off site, in two rented storage units. Pairing donations with needy vets was cumbersome, at best. “Even with all the donations, we had no good way to get vets what they needed,” says Rose Brandau McGee, who was a family financial advisor at the center. “Often, we would just go and pull out whatever was closest to the front to give to them. They didn’t get to choose what they took home.”

So McGee and her boss, VMC former executive director Tim Meserve, set out to find a better way. In May 2013, Meserve bought an old thrift store in Mayfair, and turned it over to McGee to create a space where veterans could browse through donated clothes and furnishings. But McGee did more than that. Eighteen months later, she has turned the Camouflage Rhino Thrift Store into a successful jobs program for veterans, and a potentially profitable business that is expanding to the suburbs.

“I love that I’m helping veterans everyday,” says McGee. “They deserve it. They gave to us. It’s our turn to give back to them.”

 

To McGee, this work is personal. She has a son currently serving in Afghanistan. Her dad was in Korea, and her husband was in the Army during Vietnam. Several cousins, uncles and aunts also served, and many sought help from the Vet Center when they came home. In her work at the VMC, McGee witnessed a new generation of veterans returning with few job prospects, an inability to navigate civilian life and, often, invisible wounds like PTSD and traumatic brain injuries that kept them from moving forward. “Vets are getting neglected, by the VA and by the community,” she says. “We need a better system to prepare these guys for what they may need in the future. I’m just doing a small bit of that.”

McGee employs only veterans at Camouflage Rhino, including one full-time assistant. Since the summer of 2013, 16 of her 29 workers have graduated to permanent full time jobs outside of the shop. She still employs the other 13, most of whom arrived at the store homeless or at risk of losing their houses. “I’d say 90 percent of my employees wish they’d never left the service,” McGee says. “At least they had a steady job then. Now they have nothing.” Her vets range in age from a 60-year-old Vietnam War vet, to a 22-year-old, who recently returned from Afghanistan. Unable to afford an apartment, he spends part of the week in State College with his wife’s family, and the rest crashing with friends in Philly so he can work with McGee. Like the rest of the staff, he earns $8/hour about 25 hours a week—not really enough to live on. But they are there for more than the money. “It’s good for their self-esteem,” says McGee. “They have each other for support. They are working and they get to help other vets.”

McGee is a natural entrepreneur. Before her post at the VMC, she worked for 18 years at Meals for Wheels in Mechanicsburg, PA, where she oversaw 250 volunteers and started a catering company to generate funds for the agency. In Philly, she launched a Friday sidewalk sale outside the VMC to raise money for the center, selling old paintings, printers and office furniture that was collecting dust in the building. In her spare time, she had always loved thrift and antique shopping. Still, she almost didn’t take the job. “I didn’t know at the time that this would turn out to be exactly what I want to do,” she says. “I’ve taken my shopping hobby and turned it into a job, and my love of food and turned that into a hobby. It’s like I’ve been preparing for this job all along.”

Still, turning Camouflage Rhino into a viable business has been hard. At least half of what comes in to the store goes out for free, to veterans and their families referred by the VMC—close to 320 in the first year. It is open and sells to the public Monday to Saturday, and makes about one-third of its income helping vets move their belongings in and out of apartments or storage. (Moving costs are paid either by the vet, or by a social service agency that is helping them.)

“I’d say 90 percent of my employees wish they’d never left the service,” McGee says. “At least they had a steady job then. Now they have nothing.”

The VMC pays $25,000 a month to operate Camouflage Rhino, which lost about $12,000 in its first year. McGee says the shop turned a profit for the first time last summer through increased sales and moving jobs. Now she’s hoping to get a $175,000 grant to cover the cost of the jobs program. That would turn the formerly haphazard donations program into a self-sustaining venture that can help support the VMC. In the meantime, the Camouflage Rhino model has proved successful enough that McGee is now working with the Vet Center in Coatesville to open a furniture bank in Chester County.

“I love that I’m helping veterans everyday,” says McGee. “They deserve it. They gave to us. It’s our turn to give back to them.”

Camouflage Rhino is located at 7128 Frankford Avenue, in Mayfair. It accepts donations at the store, and at the Veterans Multiservices Center at 213-217 North 4th Street. For more information about how to donate services or support the jobs program, contact Camouflage  Rhino at 267-731-6733.

Header image: FaceMePLS via Flickr.

 

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