Purchase with a purpose; local thrift store helps formerly incarcerated people
Story & photos | Zack Keltner
Some days 17-foot trucks, filled to the brim, bring a never-ending supply for Robert Rutherford to sort through.
He keeps busy with the large shipments of donations that come in throughout the day, processing them before they reach the storefront floor. He prefers the busy pace of his work. It makes the day go by faster, however he humbly admits some days it is exhausting.
As one of the workers with a felony record, he looked back to his past before he was the Inventory Manager at Monarch Thrift Shop.
“I was back and forth, back and forth to jail. Finally, one day, I was just saying to myself, I can’t do this anymore. No matter what, I gotta break this cycle, and I got out,” Rutherford said. “That was 2005 and I haven’t looked back.”
Monarch has a foundational practice of offering opportunities and employing ex-offenders ever since their opening in 2016.
Rutherford had been looking for work tirelessly prior to his employment at Monarch. He was not alone in his desperate attempts to seek a legitimate income. Employment opportunities for those with a record are less likely to come by compared to those without records, according to a report from the Prison Policy Institute.
The store, located at 2866 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, re-introduces formerly incarcerated people into the community.
With more than 75,000 people incarcerated in Illinois, people still are not aware of the obstacles people face upon being released from prison.
Store manager and CEO Christa Clumpner said the main mission of Monarch is to teach skills that would not have been utilized while incarcerated. Offering long and short term opportunities, Monarch helps those with records a job or other training experience.
“When people reoffend, it’s because they haven’t been able to establish themselves in some way in the community and find a way to have employment. Then they’re depending on family and friends or some other services in the community,” Clumpner said. That’s not a good feeling for anybody. We all want to contribute.”
Clumpner founded Monarch after working as a bookkeeper at Emmaus Ministries, a non-profit organization specializing in support for men and boys trapped in trafficking and prostitution in Chicago. After more than two decades at Emmaus, Clumpner became interested in tackling the economic components of helping people.
“It took a few years of planning and thinking about different business models before we settled on the thrift shop,” she said. “We chose it because it had a lot of opportunity for training.”
The effect of a record may not hit everyone equally, as Rutherford explained what it was like to finally come to terms with the weight of his record.
“I didn’t realize it around me, I was like, Okay, I got a felony or whatever, I’ll get out, I’ll get a job. It didn’t work out that way,” Rutherford said. “I went to several places and tried to apply. They said, ‘we don’t hire felons.’ It was like that over and over and over again. No, can’t hire you because you got a police record.”
A major issue that felons face starts right at the application process, according to employee Susanna McNerney.
“So many things these days are just done over the internet and done without face to face [interaction],” she said. “If they see that on your application they’re just like, okay, you’re a criminal. There is fear that you might re-offend. There’s no second chances.”
Despite the adversity McNerney has faced she still remains positive.
“I have an extensive education, I have two beautiful kids and you know, It’s the company’s loss in a way,” McNerney said.
With new ways to re-integrate and train essential skills to those who may have fallen behind, Monarch brings opportunities and hope for formerly incarcerated citizens.
“The police records are still there. It’s not going anywhere,” Rutherford said. “I thank God for Christa and Mireya at Monarch, you know if it wasn’t for this place, who knows what I’d be doing right now.”