Wineka column: Selling for cystic fibrosis

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 27, 2011

SALISBURY — Mrs. Brown, you have a lovely yard sale.
It doesn’t quite have the ring of that old Herman’s Hermits song, but yes, Helen Brown has a lovely yard sale that over the years has raised big money for Cystic Fibrosis research.
This spring’s two-day event, which continues from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. today, will put her over the $100,000 goal Brown set for herself eight years ago.
Now that she has reached her mark, will she continue with the twice-a-year yard sales behind her home at 1621 Emerald St.?
“I’m hoping one of my minions will say, ‘We’ll continue this for you,’ ” Brown said Friday moments before the yard sale opened at noon for its first day.
This is not your typical yard sale. All the items are donated, and Brown is authorized to provide Cystic Fibrosis Foundation receipts, so contributors can deduct the items at tax time.
Throughout the year, people are constantly dropping by her house with things for the next yard sale. Before she ever considers putting them out for sale, Brown cleans up the stuff, makes sure they work if they’re electrical or mechanical and prices items before making room in her garage or basement.
Brown never sells clothing at her yard sales, but she will accept it. She sends the clothing to a downtown consignment shop where any proceeds she makes can go to her cystic fibrosis cause.
Back at the house, Jennifer Totten often helps Brown on weekends with the cleaning, pricing, testing and storing. With his truck, Steve Lineberry also assists in picking things up from people’s homes.
“I’m just a humble servant,” Lineberry said as he hustled to his next job Friday.
On the yard-sale days, some 25 people — family, friends, church members and neighbors — serve as the army of volunteers who put out the stuff on long tables, assist customers, haul purchased goods to cars and work the cash box.
Lineberry and his truck become a delivery service when needed.
Helen often is the price guru, and she and her husband, Ralph, determine what must come out of the garage and basement and onto the tables outside.
All the helpers wear “staff” T-shirts supplied by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Neighbors Jack and Mae Keeter provide the long church tables used to hold the yard-sale merchandise, then Mae helps at the sale.
“I just really enjoy helping her, and I think it’s special because it’s such a worthy cause,” Mae said.
Olivia Ellis, 19, has been working the yard sales since she was a Girl Scout.
“Whenever they scream, ‘Olivia,’ I’m running to it,” she said.
Even on yard-sale days, people are still donating items to sell. Robert and Glenda Wilhelm brought a well-cared-for bicycle that eight different grandchildren had ridden. Grandsons Zachary and Seth Wilhelm helped to find a corner for its display Friday.
“Somebody will get a bargain,” Robert Wilhelm promised.
Helen Brown has two grandchildren, 23-year-old Anna Johnson and 18-year-old Michael Johnson, who have cystic fibrosis, an inherited chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system of about 30,000 children and adults in the United States (70,000 worldwide).
According to the CF Foundation, a defective gene and its protein product cause the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that:
• clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening lung infections;
• obstructs the pancreas and stops natural enzymes from helping the body break down and absorb food.
Anna and Michael live in Wilson with their mother (Helen and Ralph Brown’s daughter), Stephanie. It’s been an especially tough year for the children, who lost their father, Daniel, to cancer over the winter.
The Johnsons arrived Friday night and will be working at the yard sale today.
Helen Brown feels so passionate about her cause because, just in her lifetime, advances in research have raised average life expectancies into the mid 30s for people with CF.
“You can see the progress that has been made,” Brown said.
With the gains made, her grandchildren also can go off to college on their own and use special vests to give them the breathing treatments they require, rather than having to rely on parents or roommates.
Anna is going for a master’s degree at Appalachian State University; Michael will be entering ASU as a freshman in the fall.
Helen Brown says her yard sales have never brought in less than $6,000, and last May proceeds were $9,000. The spring events always seem to do a little better than the fall sales.
Brown started out Friday with $3,500 already raised from items she pre-sold, making her confident that she would reach the $100,000 benchmark.
The yard sales work thanks to the public’s donation of items, patronage at the sales and the help she receives from so many people, Brown said.
“I could not do this without all of this help,” she added.
Ralph, Helen and their friends always like to pick out an item before each sale, believing that if it sells, it would be a miracle. These miracles have happened every year, with the selling of things such as a 1998 Oldsmobile, a neighbor’s concrete steps and a load of items brought from New York and the trailer on which they came.
This spring Helen accepted the donation of an engine stand, a heavy-duty device that mechanics use to lift a motor for repairs. “If we sold that, it’s going to be a miracle,” Helen said Friday morning.
The engine stand sold in the first half-hour.
Other interesting items at this spring’s yard sale are four Desoto hubcaps, a race car driver’s fire suit and many donated items from the Pleasant Papers gift and stationery store, which is now closed.
Brown will never try to sell anything at her yard sales more than twice. After that, she donates the stuff to nonprofit groups.
When rain comes, her volunteers work swiftly — like a baseball team’s ground crew — to cover everything with plastic and tarps.
“It’s a good yard sale, and it’s going to a good cause,” Lynn Barringer said, looking over the items Friday. “I’ll be back tomorrow. I’m just kind of grazing now.”
The quality of the items, their cleanliness and the fact they’ve been tested are things customers appreciate.
“She takes a lot of time and has a lot of pride,” Barringer said.
Local businesses often help in supplying food for the workers, such as pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs, as the Browns try to make sure something’s available for lunch and dinner.
“We make it sort of a party atmosphere,” Ralph Brown said.
Believe it or not, Helen Brown has a full-time job during the week managing Dr. Rudy Busby’s office. She’s been doing it for 52 years.
“This is like a second full-time job for me,” she said.
But Brown is not complaining. Whenever she thinks about how the yard sales might help her grandchildren some day, the price is always right.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@