JONESVILLE — Hundreds of boxes line the walls of the Orphan Grain Train warehouse, stacked to the ceiling in a scene of organized chaos and filled to the brim with clothes, shoes, furniture, appliances and other household goods.

But the situation in the warehouse was very different last July, when the nonprofit Lutheran organization first transitioned into its new Jonesville location.

At that time, there were 78 cases of unsorted clothing alone that needed to be organized and boxed for delivery, a process that warehouse manager Gene Ernst, a retired minister, predicted would take a full year to catch up on.

Now that the nonprofit is approaching that one-year mark, Ernst said his prediction has come true. The clothing has finally been sorted and organized, along with the hundreds of other donations that have come through the doors of the 12,000-square-foot facility in the last 12 months.

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Although Orphan Grain Train is averaging 25 to 30 new clients each month, moving to the new building has enabled the organization to streamline its processes and more effectively serve its customers, Ernst said.

“(The building) is a tremendous blessing,” he said.

Before the move to Jonesville in July, Orphan Grain Train’s Indiana branch operated out of Elizabethtown, where Ernst and his volunteers had to move between buildings and trucks to sort through donations and help referred customers find the items they needed, a process that was often hindered by poor weather, he said.

But moving to the Jonesville building — which was partly renovated and partly built anew — has enabled the organization to become more efficient in its work by allowing volunteers to serve customers in a single location, sheltered away from the elements.

“It’s so much easier and simpler,” said Irene Shireman, a Columbus resident who has been volunteering with Orphan Grain Train for 11 years. “You don’t have to depend on the weather because it’s all under one roof.”

Key to success

Ernst credits the success of the transition to the new building to volunteers like Shireman, who donate approximately 649 volunteer hours a month. In addition to the regular rotation of workers, an average of 30 to 35 new volunteers offer up their time each month, Ernst said.Shireman and other regular volunteers spend their hours sorting through clothes, furniture, appliances and other items, boxing and labeling them for shipping and keeping up with basic housekeeping to ensure the building is presentable to customers who come in need, she said.

Volunteering also requires face-to-face time with those customers, who are referred to the organization through other local nonprofits, such as United Way’s 211 program, Ernst said.

Often, people who seek help through Orphan Grain Train have lost their homes and most everything in them due to eviction, fires or other life circumstances, said Elinor Brown, a Seymour resident who has been volunteering with the nonprofit since it opened an Indiana branch in 2008.

Brown said she recently served a mother of eight children, who spent her time in the warehouse sorting through every size of clothing the facility had in stock in search of clothes for her children.

Ernst recalled once helping a man who was released from prison shortly before he arrived at the Jonesville warehouse, completely empty-handed and in need of everything from a couch to basic kitchen appliances.

The Orphan Grain Train volunteers walked the man through the warehouse and supplied him with furniture and appliances to outfit his living room and kitchen and help him begin the next phase of his life.

Even small household items are up for grabs, a feature of the organization’s offerings that Ernst said he didn’t initially understand. If an item is very small and doesn’t serve much of a purpose, Ernst said he didn’t see any reason in donating it to be people in real need.

But when his Orphan Grain Train predecessor explained to him that even the smallest of items can make a person feel like their home has more worth, Ernst said his perspective on the work of Orphan Grain Train was completely changed.

“When you don’t have anything, just having something can make a house a home,” Ernst said. “You want to give them a sense of worth and dignity.”

Finding fulfillment

Interactions with customers are what keep volunteers like Brown and Shireman coming back to the Jonesville warehouse each week, they said.“You feel fulfilled when you help them,” Brown said.

But the nonprofit’s efforts aren’t limited to the southern Indiana region, Ernst said.

In recent months, trucks loaded down with donated items have been sent out from the Jonesville warehouse to locations all across the country and even the world, including to charities in eastern Kentucky, southern Texas, Haiti, Ukraine and Latvia, a small country near Russia.

Thousands of boxes filled with clothes, blankets, linens, school supplies and other items are packed and loaded onto large trucks for shipments to areas where people have basic needs. Even larger items such as bicycles make it onto the trucks for use by people around the world.

The recipients of those items are generally overwhelmed with gratitude, a reaction that is extremely heartwarming, Ernst said.

But as they proceed to thank him or his volunteers for their generosity, Ernst said he refuses to accept all of the credit. Without the generosity of donors, he said, the work of Orphan Grain Train would be nearly impossible.

“They’re thanking us, but I tell them ‘We’ll extend the thanks to the people that gave,’” Ernst said.

As the organization approaches its one-year anniversary in its Jonesville location next month, the warehouse manager said he is thrilled with the improvements the new building has enabled him to make to his organization’s work.

As more and more people come to the new warehouse in search of basic household items, Ernst said he revels in the opportunity to show those people that there is hope for a better life, no matter how much a person is struggling.

“We’re blessed to be a blessing,” he said.

How to donate/volunteer

Donations to Orphan Grain Train can be dropped off at the Jonesville branch at 209 Jackson St., Jonesville. The facility is equipped with a drive-up drop off center. The warehouse will accept clothing, kitchen appliances, furniture, mattresses and other household goods.

Monetary donations can be sent to the Jonesville address or to the national headquarters at P.O. Box 1466, Norfolk, Nebraska, 68702.

Volunteers who are interested in helping Orphan Grain Train can contact Indiana Branch manager Gene Ernst at 812-405-2045.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.