“A smile and a heart,” said a woman shopper about what comes with the free clothes, food and household items provided for the 300 or so homeless people in our area who are clients of the Knox County Homeless Coalition.

“They make you feel welcome, and that it’s okay to be in this position to have to be [shopping] here,” she said, checking out bed sheets for her granddaughter and back-to-school pants for her grandsons. “It brings you up.”

The smile and the heart are courtesy of Brenda, Jen and Karen, each formerly homeless and, with help from the Knox County Homeless Coalition, all now in independent housing.

The “store” is on the sunflower-strewn shelter compound on Old County Road in Rockport. It is a treasured rite of passage for homeless people who have finally gotten into their own apartment but for most a way to get through the week. Clients of other local organizations such as food pantries and New Hope for Women come as well with shopping vouchers. The “gently worn” clothes and household items are donated by the community and the food comes from local grocery stores, the USDA, Good Shepherd Food Bank, and private groups that take up collections.

Brenda described her duties as a volunteer as, “We put the clothes away, ask people if there is anything special they’re looking for. And we’re getting the place organized so it’s easier to find stuff.”

She lived at the shelter for three months and said the coalition “helped me get my own place in Thomaston. They’re good people. After I got my place I asked if I could help.” She volunteers the three days a week the store is open, to “keep busy” in addition to caring for an elderly couple and starting a job in food service at the Methodist Conference Home in Rockland.

Brenda’s boss, Eileen McGuigan, said, “Brenda is incredibly reliable, has boundless energy and takes on projects with a smile. The success of our donation center relies heavily on our volunteers, and Brenda is one of the best.”

Karen, on the payroll of the coalition for almost a year, was one of the first clients of the shelter when it opened under new management five years ago. “They helped me find a place to live and helped me get furniture. They just do so much,” she said.

Stephanie Primm is the coalition’s executive director and a big part of the operation’s astounding rebound. “We have given a few clients the opportunity to learn, mostly because we saw excellent attitude and a desire to try. Karen and Jen have shown excellent dedication and have been flexible as we’ve discovered their skills and abilities. They have built confidence by being in an environment that takes into consideration the trauma background and low self-esteem present in a vast majority of our clients. The goal of this confidence and skill-building is that it will lead to hope and courage to explore other job opportunities.

Jen’s 20 hours a week at the shelter include writing out thank-you notes to donors in her meticulous handwriting and doing art projects such as turning the community drop-off box for Christmas gifts into a house decorated for the holidays. About the princess and superhero outfits brightening up the basement space, she said, “We’ve been hanging costumes because the kids love things like that.”

“Thank you so much. Have a great day!” she said brightly, with a warm smile, handing a man a bag with three men’s shirts, a pair of shoes, a clock and a lamp. The “receipt” is noting down the person’s town — name not necessary, further easing any stigma the shopper might feel.

Jen got her own apartment two years ago. “Having been a person in need myself I think it’s important to make people feel good. Sometimes people come in and apologize for needing help. I don’t want people to feel bad. We all need help sometimes.”

The woman shopper, 56 and wearing a neck brace, echoed: “It happens to the best of us.” Working in manual labor all her life, “I got hurt, lost my job, and lost my apartment.” She looked straight at the interviewer and added, “Don’t get hurt. It could happen to you.”