Women say sorting donations at The Arc of San Juan County in Farmington is fun, rewarding

James Fenton
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Whether it's a Wurlitzer organ, wedding dresses, pingpong tables, fishing poles, kitchenware, vinyl records or clothes, chances are two women sorted them for sale at the second-hand store on West Broadway Avenue.

Bertha Smith and Virgie Castiano have sorted all of the donated items at The Arc of San Juan County thrift store in Farmington for years, and they both say the work is fun and for a good cause.

The nonprofit store, which is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Sundays, receives donations through a blue door in the back.

Smith, 63, begins each day by wading through a daunting mountain of donations at the store. On Friday, she was knee-deep in boxes overflowing with dishes, pottery, electronics, toasters and figurines to sort, dust off and send to be shelved throughout the store.

"A lot of times, people come in and ask for things, and we look for them — usually the items that might cost a lot more at the drugstore: fans, heaters, TVs, barbecue grills," Smith said. "You name it, we probably have it here. I have been surprised how many times we've found exactly what the person wanted."

Smith underscored her point by walking through sections of the main floor and pointing out the conventional and curious, including the store's pet, a bird named Kitty that chirped away in a large cage atop the front counter. The bird was a donation from Navajo Ministries.

"Look at this," Smith said, tapping the end of a windsurfing board and later pointing out bright orange life vests for sale. "Something for everybody, whether they're trying to set up a new home, find clothes for work or if they have a wedding, maybe looking for a quick gift. We can find it for them."

Smith started the job nine years ago after she came by from her home in Bloomfield to shop for her five grandchildren and thought the store would be a fun place to work.

"Somebody asked me, 'Do you enjoy it here?' and I said, 'I do,' because there's so many interesting things," Smith said. "Everything is here. I can't name them all. I think it's a good thing. People need a unique present for a birthday or surprise in a hurry like jewelry, a toy, books, baskets, art posters. We even have the wrapping paper, ribbon and cards, too."

Back at Smith's workstation — a desk overflowing with donations, tools, cleaning supplies and countless extension cords draped overhead like spaghetti — she adds a few broken items to the "Mister bag," the catch-all name for any item that is ripped, torn, stained, dingy or unfit to be sold. The quirky name comes from a man who once collected the store's damaged items to take to the Navajo Nation.

"We recycle everything we can't sell. Don't throw it away," Smith said.

Downstairs in the basement, Castiano, 54, spends the majority of her time sorting donations that come down a conveyor belt, mostly clothes, blankets, holiday decorations, Halloween costumes, linens, bags and shoes.

One corner of her work area is a growing pile of white trash bags more than 10 feet high.

"That's the 'mister' pile. Each bag is weighed to be about 12 pounds, and it all gets trucked to Texas (to Charity Shoes and Clothing) when the pile gets big enough, usually 20,000 pounds," Castiano said. "We also save stuffed animals and dolls for a man who comes from Durango to take to give to children. Knowing that they will make a kid somewhere smile makes me happy."

Another corner is stacked high with bags full of unsalable T-shirts that local mechanics buy by the bag to use as shop rags.

Castiano, who is originally from Gallup, finds the work a source of amusement and satisfaction. She often jokes and laughs with volunteers, some with disabilities, who help her sort through the endless stream of bags and boxes that come down the conveyer belt.

At Christmas time, the staff of 14 workers, all part-time, have fun with the avalanche of decorations, Christmas trees and assorted holiday items that flood the basement.

"We have an ugly shirt contest near Christmas time. You know, the ugly Christmas sweater. We take that idea and kind of push it too far," Castiano said, laughing. "But people buy them, I guess to wear at parties or give as (gag) gifts. It's funny. Pretty much we're having fun and working at the same time."

But mostly, Castiano is busy sorting through items, often going through at least a dozen heaping grocery cart-fulls in a six-hour shift. She also helps locate more obscure or specific items for customers, taking their names and numbers if she can't find them right away.

"In the wintertime, we keep a box of jackets that we will let people off the street look through and pick one for free. Anything that we do is to help people," she said.

The work itself is monotonous, but Castiano, like Smith, finds a quiet satisfaction in doing a job well and knowing someone will be helped or happy as a result.

"I don't mind. I never sit. I'm not a sit-down person," Castiano said. "Sometimes, I forget to eat lunch, I get so involved. Sometimes, I think I'm not normal. But that's how I was raised — get out of bed with the sun, make the bed. Take a shower, clean the shower. Go out the door, take the trash out. When you eat dinner, pans are soaking and cleaned when you're done."

Started in 1950, The Arc is "the largest national organization of and for people with intellectual and related developmental disabilities and their families," according to the organization's website.

The Arc has more than 700 state and local chapters across the country. New Mexico once had 14 affiliate organizations, but now the state has only two, including The Arc of New Mexico in Albuquerque, according to Farmington's store manager Mark Silversmith.

"It's pretty much controlled chaos," he said. "I don't know where we'd be without Bertha and Virgie. It's everybody here and our volunteers who make it possible to support at our mission to help people with disabilities. Every dollar you spend here goes into the community to advocate for people. We're about people. That's the whole point."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and

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