A friend invited Theresa Leduna to sign up as an English as a Second Language teacher at the Carnell Family Resource Center in Oxford Circle, and she was hesitant about it.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she recalls, frankly.
However, it didn’t take long for Leduna to bond with her students, immigrant women like herself who lived in the neighborhood. After a while, the class became like a family, she said, and they began sharing their experiences.
“We started having conversations about our struggles and our triumphs and all of the things that we have been going through as immigrants,” said Leduna, who was born in the Philippines and passed her citizenship test last week.
What she heard — that these women were struggling to find jobs and felt isolated in their homes — inspired her to work with the Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Corporation to open a thrift shop.
The Exchange at Oxford Circle opened nearly a year ago at Castor Avenue and Hellerman Street in a storefront that served as Singers Appliance, which closed in 2015 after nearly seven decades in the neighborhood.
It’s only been 11 months for the Exchange, but those involved in OCCCDA hope it can develop into a focal point for the community — and not just for shopping.
“What we wanted to do is provide jobs for immigrants in the community,” OCCCDA Executive Director Pearl Wang-Herrera said. “We really want this also to be a hub for those who are starting off as a business, who maybe need office space and need that extra support.”
Wang-Herrera has experience in the area. Before taking the job in Oxford Circle, she directed the Community College of Philadelphia’s Power Up Your Business program and also managed the incubator at Temple University’s Small Business Development Center.
Now, the idea is to set up something similar in Oxford Circle. The Exchange’s second floor has a training room that can accommodate up to 20 people and office space.
One plan in the works is to offer that office space to early-stage small businesses and nonprofits to launch their ideas, Wang-Herrera said. The Northeast Philadelphia Chinese Association, a recently-formed group, has been using the space.
Wang-Herrera said the OCCCDA is hoping to eventually set up a job search center and form an incubator to provide technical support to local businesses at the Exchange.
Already, the thrift shop hosts ESL classes, art classes and a weekly farmers’ market. They also held a workshop in Spanish for first-time homebuyers, according to Andrea Hodge, OCCCDA’s economic development associate.
“There are communities forming around the Exchange,” Hodge said. “People are starting to feel like this space is more than just a store. It’s a community space.”
The thrift store itself, which is 6,800 square feet, sells men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, housewares, linens, toys and other miscellaneous items at affordable prices.
Everything is donated, and the store welcomes contributions from residents. Anyone interested in donating can bring items during the Exchange’s business hours, Monday through Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. Currently, they are not doing pick-ups.
The Exchange gets a truckload of merchandise every month from Care & Share Thrift Shoppes in Souderton, which is where Leduna worked before managing the Castor Avenue store.
Both are affiliated with the Mennonite Church, and Care & Share, which opened in the 1970s, has been helping to guide OCCCDA.
“What they say is it generally takes three years” to start turning a profit, Wang-Herrera said. “So we realize it takes time.”
The Exchange received city and state grants and donations from local banks and businesses to get started.
Once the store starts making more money, OCCCDA would like to hire more employees — which gets back to the Exchange’s original mission — and fund additional educational programs, Wang-Herrera said.
So far, OCCCDA has hired four employees for the store. Two are immigrant women, including one of Leduna’s ESL students. Another is a local high school student
“We do see our dream happening,” Leduna said with a smile. ••
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.