Behind the Scenes at the Corinthian Co-op

Get to know the volunteers who serve Wheaton College students by providing free clothing, bedroom essentials, kitchenware and more.

By Haleigh Olthof | Contributing Writer
March 17, 2021
The Corinthian Co-op. Photo by: Kellie Mitchell.

Kim Walton sits beside a plastic folding table at the entrance to the Co-op Annex, a space filled with toys, furniture, and clothes in the basement of a brick apartment building near the soccer field on College Ave. A Wheaton student walks in. Walton checks that she’s made an appointment. A big part of Walton’s job, during the pandemic, has been ensuring the Co-op maintains its five-person, COVID-safe capacity. She instructs the visitor to use hand sanitizer and then directs her inside. 

 

“Women’s attire on the right,” Walton says, pointing. “Long dresses, short dresses, cover-ups for your shoulders (it’s February!), nail polish, and shoes, shoes, shoes!” 

 

Since 2006, Walton has been volunteering at the Corinthian Co-op, the Wheaton Women’s Club’s on-campus ministry to Wheaton students, faculty, and staff. In addition to the Annex— which hosts special events such as supplying students with gowns, suits, and ties for the College Union’s recent Mask-querade Ball—the Co-op occupies a larger space in the basement of another apartment building on the same block. That main location features more casual clothing–jackets, pants, sneakers, and tops–as well as totes, notebooks, pens, old textbooks, and room décor.

 

The Co-op is run by about twelve volunteers, including Walton. Most volunteers are associated with the Wheaton Women’s Club, a group of women faculty and wives of faculty (Walton’s husband, John, teaches Old Testament at Wheaton) that has served the college community for more than 80 years.Volunteer availability limits the Co-op’s hours to a few hours each weekday, but the volunteers’ work also keeps everything in the Co-op free of charge. All items are donated by students or other community members.

 

Walton became the Co-op Interest Group Coordinator, a position that involves representing the Co-op to the Wheaton Women’s Club board, in 2007. In the years following, she took over more responsibilities from Coral Rupprecht, who co-founded the Co-op in 1968 with Marilyn Spradley. Rupprecht’s and Spradley’s husbands were Wheaton professors. Rupprecht got the idea to establish a children’s clothing and supplies exchange while living in the UK, where her husband was completing graduate studies at the University of Cambridge. At a local co-op run by the Society for Visiting Scholars, Rupprecht picked up a highchair, playpen and buggy.

 

Upon returning to the U.S., she started collecting donations and hosting exchanges for faculty and staff families. Her and Spradley’s efforts grew into the Corinthian Co-op that serves campus today.

 

Walton now heads the ministry. She organizes volunteers, communicates with the college on behalf of the Co-op, organizes and displays donations, and staffs the Co-op during its hours when other volunteers are unavailable.

 

“Like most things I end up getting involved in, it kind of fell into my lap,” said Walton. “I followed [Coral’s] vision and with her support, I started to do some of the day-to-day things. I was much younger [than Coral], so I could do some of the things that she was starting to step back from.” She added, “This is a full-time job and I am a volunteer. If I weren’t meeting students all the time, it would be a very draining job.”

 

Walton’s creativity and ingenuity have helped improve the Co-op’s operations. In the summer of 2018, the College Ave 818 apartment building was renovated. Air conditioning and a bathroom were installed. Volunteers moved the Co-op’s contents into the 814 basement, now the Annex, before the renovations began, then moved everything back when the renovations were complete. The Co-op was ready again just five days before orientation for international graduate students, who are the first group the Co-op serves each school year.

Household items available to students at no cost. Photo by: Kellie Mitchell.

“When I think back to that summer, I don’t know how we did it,” said Walton. “I think when there’s a task that needs to be done and it’s something that God wants to move forward, he provides the people. He provides some of the ideas. He provides some of the creativity. I’m not going to give myself all the credit.”

 

This year, COVID has challenged the Co-op’s very existence. Cindy Bretsen, who started volunteering with the Co-op in 2009 and is now a regular Wednesday afternoon volunteer, wondered, “Will we [volunteers] be allowed on campus?”

 

Over the summer, the college approved opening the Co-op for the 2020-2021 school year, allowing volunteers to follow the same COVID-safe guidelines as faculty and staff and instituting a five-person capacity in the 818 and 814 College Avenue basements.

 

Fortunately, the capacity limit wasn’t entirely new to the Co-op. Even before COVID-19 hit, the small space could fit only a limited number of shoppers. This was particularly a challenge at the annual grand opening the Monday before classes started.

 

“Especially for the students that are having their first apartment, to come the first day the Co-op opens is a high priority,” said Walton. “Sometimes the line from the Co-op door will be out to the main sidewalk by the street.”

 

A few years ago, to avoid the chaos of dozens of students trying to shop at once, Walton engineered a solution for opening day: speed shopping.

 

“I got that idea from speed dating,” said Walton. At the annual grand opening, fifteen students could shop at a time for fifteen minutes each. After an hour, shopping would be put on hold so volunteers could restock racks and shelves.

 

This year, Walton adapted the speed shopping model to fit the COVID-safe room capacity of five people, which includes one or two volunteers. During the first week of classes, students could make ten-minute appointments in either the usual Co-op location or the Co-op Annex, which was previously reserved for winter clothing. After the first week, with her volunteers stretching thin, Walton switched to fifteen-minute appointments in the main Co-op location and closed the Annex except for special events.

 

The strict appointment times have made it harder for volunteers to interact with students. Bretsen said she and her Wednesday morning partner, Patty Mann, “typically will chat and hang out with the students. Patty is always giving love advice to whoever is dating somebody. And we can’t do that right now because they’ve only got fifteen minutes to shop, so they are laser-focused. Just like everybody else, we are looking forward to when we can all be a little more relaxed together.”

 

Bretsen enjoys seeing students she’s formed relationships with in the past, as well as students from the college group she and her husband sponsor at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Warrenville.

 

Despite the time constraints, distancing and masks, Bretsen and Mann keep the Co-op fun and welcoming. As she has done in years past, Bretsen slides CDs from home into the Co-op’s CD player. Students shop to jazz, Pentatonix, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. For the holidays, Bretsen plays Christmas carols.

 

“Sometimes we have it too loud, and people cannot hear each other,” said Bretsen, laughing. 

 

Bretsen’s husband, Stephen, teaches business and law and is Wheaton’s pre-law advisor. She learned about the Co-op at a Women’s Club event for new women on campus in 2003, when she and her family arrived in Wheaton. 

 

Volunteer Pam Koenigsberg was similarly introduced to the Co-op through its hospitality. She got play clothes for her children from the Co-op on a Saturday in 1984, when her husband, Bruce, started his job as campus architect.

Corinthian Co-op entrance. Photo by: Kellie Mitchell.

Koenigsberg now volunteers on Tuesday mornings and sorts donations, especially children’s clothing. Her experience working with fabrics as a sewer and quilter comes in handy: “They can say, ‘What size is this?’ and hold something up, and I’ll say, ‘That looks like about a 4T,’” said Koenigsberg.

 

Volunteer Debora Corpeño first visited the Co-op the week she moved to Wheaton from Guatemala with her children and husband, who is completing a Ph.D. in theology at Wheaton. It was 2017. They arrived without sweaters or coats, and it rained on their second day in town. They contacted the Co-op, which provided them with the necessary garments.

 

The Co-op, originally open only to faculty and staff, started supplying winter clothing, free of charge, to international students in the early ’70s. Since then, volunteers have continued to serve the growing international student population.

 

“When international [graduate] students come to the United States, they have to find an apartment,” Walton said. “They have to figure out life. They have to figure out where to get the stuff they need. They’re also going through orientation, starting classes, setting up bank accounts and trying to get a driver’s license.” 

 

The Co-op helps relieve some of the stress of moving by providing linen packs with sheets, blankets and towels, as well as kitchen packs with pans, dish drainers and utensils for all graduate students that are interested. International students can also shop at the Co-op before the annual grand opening for the rest of the campus community.

 

For Walton, working with international students has been one of the most rewarding facets of her service at the Co-op. “I’ve gotten to know their ministry. I’ve gotten to know why they’re here. I’ve gotten to help find stuff to meet their needs, and that’s been very enriching. That’s what keeps me going when I’m tired of moving stuff.”

 

Corpeño decided to become a volunteer the week she arrived on campus. For the last three years, she has sorted donations and helped Walton organize the piles of donations students leave behind at the end of the school year.

 

In addition to helping her brave the winter of 2017 — that year was so cold that Corpeño’s family started wearing their winter clothes in October — working at the Co-op helped Corpeño overcome the biggest obstacle of moving to the States: the language. “I started practicing my broken English and learning clothes vocabulary. Having interactions with Kim [Walton] and with the other ladies there was helpful for me to start feeling more confident with the language,” she said.

 

Corpeño serves mostly behind the scenes, but she has helped Walton face some of the ministry’s biggest challenges of the last few years. Corpeño helped move donations between co-op locations when the building was remodeled in the summer of 2018. That May, the Annex flooded, and Corpeño and her thirteen-year-old daughter helped move donations to safety.

 

For Corpeño, the Co-op is tied to American culture. “In [Guatemala], we don’t have donations like in the U.S. It’s a bit shocking to see how many things people throw away [or donate]. In Latin America, the countries are poor so nobody throws away clothes or furniture. They use it as long as they can.”

 

The Co-op keeps unwanted clothing out of the landfill — which is where many items went before the Co-op stepped in. “There was this joke among faculty and staff that after the students left, you went dumpster diving, and there were perfectly good items that people just threw out. Now there’s a whole system for recycling those things,” said Bretsen. 

 

In the ’90s, the Co-op began collecting clothing, furniture and other items students left behind at the end of the school year. Student Development provided trucks and helped move donations to the Co-op for sorting. Since 2008, volunteers sort donations in the dorms themselves during an intense, all-hands-on-deck, two-week period at the end of each school year.

 

“We try to not keep things we wouldn’t want to use ourselves,” said Koenigsberg. Rejected items are sent to Wayside Cross Ministries, a social services organization in Aurora that, depending on an item’s condition, may display it in their thrift store or send it to another organization to be made into rags.

 

Bretsen, Corpeño, Koenigsberg and Walton see their hard work pay off when they hear stories from students. Koenigsberg’s daughter’s roommate came to Wheaton from California in 1997 with only a word processor, a bedspread, sheets and a few skirts and short-sleeved tops.

 

“She outfitted herself all four years from the Co-op because that’s what fit the budget, and it was a huge blessing,” said Koenigsberg. 

 

“God is concerned about our stuff,” said Walton, “and he’s concerned about the needs people have for stuff. Sometimes it’s not even something you need; it may be something that just makes your heart beat a little happier or will make your room a little cheerier or brings a little bit of home to somebody who’s homesick.”

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