By Martie Thompson
Mark and Alisa Tillman moved to St. Johns about eight years ago with their young, autistic son Lucas. They had both sets of parents living in Florida, in Tallahassee and Tampa, and decided that Northeast Florida would be a good middle ground. Research into area schools with good ESE programs led them to St. Johns County.
Both Mark and Alisa Tillman worked for ADT, but had the idea in mind to open a small, non-profit thrift store so that Lucas would be able to have a job when he got older. In the summer of 2017, Mark Tillman said he had begun the process of securing non-profit status with the intent to open a thrift store. Then, a few days before Christmas, he went to the Red Door Thrift Store in Fruit Cove to buy an ugly Christmas sweater for his wife and found out that the owner was closing the store. The Tillmans decided to take it over instead and decided that, even though the store was larger than they had in mind, perhaps they could use it to help even more autistic and developmentally delayed people than just their son. Eight days later, on Jan. 1, 2018, they opened Spectrum Thrift Store.
“We both quit our jobs and left it in God’s hands,” Tillman said.
Q: How was the first year of ownership of the thrift store?
A: We learned a lot the first year. We both worked every day for 11 months. We found that we had to sell a lot of things just to cover the rent. The first year, we only had one paid employee. Now we have three, including Alisa. I’m a volunteer and we have many other volunteers, including some who are autistic and developmentally delayed. We had more than 75 of these individuals volunteer last year. Now we also employ 11 autistic and developmentally delayed people. We have a local board of directors, mostly parents of children with autism who are a wealth of knowledge. My goal is to surround myself with people who are smarter than me.
Q: What success stories have you had?
A: Eight of our autistic and developmentally delayed kids have now been hired by other places. One is in the Burger King management training program, and one is now a greeter at the Cummer Art Gallery. They started out either hanging clothes in the back of the thrift store or testing VHS tapes or working on the floor or the register if they were outgoing and now look where they are. We want to be a gateway for these kids.
Q: What is the most popular and what is the most unique item you have for sale at the thrift store?
A: Our most popular item is clothing. All kinds of clothing, some with tags still on. As for unique, every day we receive a donated item that we have to hold up in the store to see if any of our customers know what it is … like a butler’s tray recently. It’s like Christmas every day when we open our donation bags.
Q: What is something unique about your thrift store?
A: One thing we do is offer free books. All books in the store are free, but we request a donation to our “ESE Classroom Jar.” This money we donate to other groups, like $1,000 recently to Field of Dreams. To date, we have donated nearly $10,000 to ESE programs due to the generosity of our customers who get free books. Also, on our website (www.spectrumthriftstore.com), for those who want to further support our mission of supporting the autistic and developmentally delayed, there is an option to donate directly to the employment of these individuals at our store. I keep these funds in a separate account and am happy to show that all money donated here goes only to this purpose.
Photo courtesy Mark Tillman
Mark and Alisa Tillman outside Spectrum Thrift Store