SALISBURY — Rob Werner was sitting at home one day in 2008 when a new chapter in his life began.
"I was reading a newspaper article about a food pantry in Maine and they had nothing on the shelves left for Christmas except for Halloween candy," Werner said. "I wondered how a food pantry only had candy left. I called them and found out since we were in the middle of an economic downturn, the money for these things just dried up. People just stopped giving cash."
Werner, 56, a former sales executive, knew he "couldn't just stand around anymore," so he and his wife, Shauna, founded the Leeward Charitable Foundation with Werner as its president and CEO.
After opening Leeward Landing Thrift Store in York, Maine, in February 2009, the Werners added Leeward Light Thrift Store on Bridge Road in Salisbury four months later and proceeded to run both like a business.
"It was clear that there were thrift stores out there that were run like a church bazaar," Werner said. "Maybe they were open on a Saturday, maybe they weren't. That's why they weren't growing concerns. So, we ask people to donate to us their no-longer-loved clothing, household stuff and furniture stuff, and who doesn't have that? Then, we clean it and sell it."
Functioning on a simple idea, both thrift stores are open six days a week and have raised $1.7 million since 2009 for local charitable organizations such as Pettengill House in Salisbury, Our Neighbors' Table in Amesbury, Community Service of Newburyport and Church of Christ in Seabrook, among others.
"It's fantastic," Werner said. "But after awhile, that is a number that becomes impersonal. What is personal are the things that the general public does here. They come in and they donate some beautiful things to us."
One such item, according to Werner, was a white leather couch that caught two women off guard one day.
"It came to us brand new and it was at least a $2,000 couch," Werner said. "These two women are looking at it and one woman said, 'That is a beautiful couch. Are you going to buy it?' The other woman said she wasn't, it was too expensive. It was $150. Then, the first woman bought it and said, 'Give it to her.'"
Finding "the best pair of blue jeans I've ever had" at Leeward Light, Clare Keller of Newburyport has been a fan of the thrift shop for many years.
When Keller heard U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, was putting out the call for nominees for the second annual Peter J. Gomes Service Award, she knew exactly whose name she would submit.
"(Werner and I) have never met," Keller said. "I just admire what he does and think there could be no more perfect example of what the Gomes Award is intended to recognize."
Named for a late Harvard Divinity School professor and Harvard Memorial Church preacher, the award is given to an individual in the Massachusetts 6th Congressional District who epitomizes the qualities of integrity, compassion and commitment to community that were the foundation of Gomes’ teachings.
There were more than 30 nominees for the award, with Werner named one of the eight finalists. Lynn Vocational and Technical Institute teacher Jason McCuish was the eventual winner at a ceremony Sunday that honored him and the other finalists at Lynn City Hall.
"It's quite an honor," Werner said.
Since Keller was unavailable to speak on Werner's behalf, Shauna was given the honor of introducing her husband at the ceremony.
"He is not just a founder, he is not just a figurehead, he is involved in every aspect of the business," she said. "This business wouldn't work without him. He is such a smart businessman and a problem solver. I also know, being married to him, that at 5 or 6 in the morning, he is crunching the numbers. Then, he comes down here and is mowing the lawn or shoveling the snow."
Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.