COLONIE — In the back room of an eclectic Central Avenue house, Theresa Viva opened her arms to take garbage bags full of kids’ clothes.
“Hi Theresa, more stuff!” the woman donating used items called out as she handed over a pink stool decorated with Disney princesses. “Maybe you can give to the lady who does fostering?”
Everyone who visits A Second Chance Thrift Shop seems to knows Viva and the causes she supports — ranging from the Italian-American community, to foster kids, to premature babies.
The 67-year-old self-described “Italian mama” brims with energy. In between embracing donors, volunteers, and customers, she keeps up a steady stream of stories about her Ferrari mechanic husband from Sicily who loves motor oil and marinara sauce. In the back room surrounded by boxes of cannoli shells and a basket of religious curios, she shows off videos of her four grandkids — six-year-old triplets and a five-year-old — with whom she lives.
Viva runs the thrift shop, supported entirely by donations and volunteers. Proceeds go to the American-Italian Heritage Museum, located behind the house in a converted church.
How to give
A Second Chance Thrift Shop accepts donations on Tuesday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They’re looking in particular for costume jewelry. No large furniture, appliances or computers.
Its director Philip DiNovo, a retired professor knighted by the Italian government for his community service, is celebrating three milestones this year. He started his organization 40 years ago, opened the museum 10 years ago, and added on the cultural center five years ago.
Visitors from all 50 states and 31 countries have come since then, DiNovo said. The museum has a membership of about 900 families of all ethnicities and hosts classes, events and programs for everyone.
“We’re a community asset doing something for the whole community,” DiNovo said. “When we build bridges with ethnic communities, we all have a lot in common.”
There are an estimated 155,000 residents of Italian descent in the Capital Region, DiNovo said. Most Italians are growing older and have assimilated into American society, he said, although highly-educated Italians are still immigrating to the area for tech jobs. Now the challenge is encouraging young people to get involved.
“My hope is that we will remain vibrant and be able to survive once this generation is gone,” DiNovo said.
The thrift shop makes at least $100 each day on Tuesdays and Saturdays when it’s open to pay help bills at the museum, said Viva, who took over running operations in January. At first, she was a little bit nervous, but she’s always loved thrifting as money was tight when she was younger. On a recent Tuesday morning, she was wearing a white sweater she bought secondhand for $3 with pink roses she sewed on — “bedazzling” as she calls it.
“I try to make the most of it and try to give back,” Viva said. “It goes above and beyond to help the museum. It’s keeping my heritage alive.”
When Viva was five, her family immigrated from Italy to Philadelphia. They moved to Schenectady three years later. Her parents struggled to make ends meet and her father, a stone mason, helped build Empire State Plaza. She lived in the same house until moving in with her daughter in East Greenbush recently.
Viva never went to college, but that hasn’t held her back. She has worked as a grocery store cashier, at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, at financial service firm Ayco, and as a pastry chef in Italian restaurants, as well as owning her own bakery.
Now, Viva devotes her free time to the shop. She depends on as many as 50 volunteers, takes local donations, and scours Facebook Marketplace for deals.
Viva is full of serendipitous stories about the community coming together. A new customer who fosters children reached out looking for cappuccino cups to serve visiting social workers, and now Viva saves a couple bags a week of baby clothes and stuffed animals for the woman, who brings by garbage bags or donuts for volunteers in return. Viva also collects bags to give to another foster care non-profit run by the daughter of her childhood neighbor Rita DeLorenzo, also a volunteer.
On Tuesday, Viva was dropping of two bags full of wedding dresses to a Capital Region non-profit, Angel Gowns, that re-purposes the gowns to clothe babies who die prematurely. On Friday, young women from community service organization Vanderhayden were coming by to pick out prom dresses for free. They also donate to Schenectady Home Furnishings, which gives items to those in need referred from the Department of Social Services.
The shop also funds its efforts with thrifty finds. Recently, Viva and another volunteer drove to Delmar to pick up 14 boxes of 65 collector dolls she found for free on Facebook. She’s researching to price them, she said, since sometimes things are far more valuable than they appear.
Recently, the shop received an unopened Barbie from the 1950s. Another volunteer, Anna Barletta, looked up how much it was worth and ended up selling it for $1,100 on eBay.
Other than the occasional collector’s item, most things in the store are very low-priced. The shop doesn’t only support the community but also customers who may need to buy basic goods for less.
On Tuesday, regular customer Carole Schreib, who comes in every week, showed off an Albany regatta framed print for $5.
“Isn’t it fabulous?” she said as she gushed about Viva and the shop she runs. “You can see the hard work and the love.”