A ‘Desert Dream’ come true

Posted on January 3rd in News


Store offers rare opportunities for young adults

by Samantha White Burns Times-Herald

(L-R): Sheila Cunningham (Burns High School life skills), Sandy Volle (Hines Middle School life skills), and Heather Sell (Slater Grade School life skills) each received a $600 donation from Lisa Tiller of Desert Dream Thrift Store. (Photo by SAMANTHA WHITE )

(L-R): Sheila Cunningham (Burns High School life skills), Sandy Volle (Hines Middle School life skills), and Heather Sell (Slater Grade School life skills) each received a $600 donation from Lisa Tiller of Desert Dream Thrift Store. (Photo by SAMANTHA WHITE )

Lisa Tiller had a dream. And that dream was to provide more opportunities for her son, Nicholas, and other people in Harney County who have developmental disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome, and other learning disabilities.

Tiller said students who have developmental disabilities may remain enrolled in high school until they are 21, but there aren’t a lot of opportunities for them to stay involved in this community after they graduate. As a result, some local parents of children with developmental disabilities have been forced to choose whether or not to move to areas where more resources are available.

But Tiller didn’t want to make that choice. She said Nicholas, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, has developed relationships with people in Harney County.

“There are a lot of special things in this community,” she said, adding that Nicholas’ family lives here, and a lot of people have gotten to know him.

These relationships are especially important considering that social interaction can be difficult for people who have autism. According to the website, autismspeaks.org, autism is a general term for a group of complex disorders of brain development, characterized (in varying degrees) by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Autism can also be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention, and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some people who have autism excel in visual skills, music, art and math. And statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that around one in 88 American children have been identified as being on the autism spectrum.

Tiller said she wanted her son (and people like him) to be able to get a job and be a productive member of society, without having to move away from his family and the community he was raised in.

She said she enjoys shopping at thrift stores and thought opening a thrift store was something that she could do to help her son.

Tiller opened Desert Dream Thrift Store July 12, 2012. Now located at 362 N. Broadway Ave. in Burns, the nonprofit, donation-based store provides both support and opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.

Students from the Burns High School (BHS) life skills class learn job and social skills through their work at the store. For example, in addition to learning about money, the students work with volunteers from the community and life skills classroom to price, shelf, sort and tag donated merchandise. They also prepare materials for recycling and complete basic store maintenance tasks, such as sweeping, dusting and cleaning windows. The students also use BHS’ washers and dryers to launder some of the clothing items that are donated to the store. In exchange, the store donates laundry supplies to the school.

As a reward for their hard work, the life skills students earn vouchers that can be exchanged for store merchandise. Tiller said clothing, jewelry and video games are some of the most popular items among the student workers.

In an effort to add opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities, Tiller, who is the program director, said she would like to expand the program to include adults who are 21 and older.

Tiller said the overall mission of the thrift store is to “try to support anyone in Harney County with a developmental disability.”

Her long-term goal is to open a group home for developmentally-disabled adults. But in the meantime, she continues to donate to local community organizations that help people who have developmental disabilities.

In fact, on Monday, Dec. 16, Tiller donated $600 apiece to the BHS, Hines Middle School and Slater Grade School life skills classrooms. She also donated $600 to The Committee for Harney County Special Needs, and another $600 to the BHS Youth Transition Program.

Because Desert Dream Thrift Store is all volunteer-based and depends entirely on community donations, Tiller said it is hard for her to know how much she will be able to donate each year, but she plans to make annual contributions to these types of local programs. Tiller said she has also donated store merchandise for silent auctions to support other local organizations, such as Harney County Home Health and Hospice.

Tiller said Desert Dream Thrift Store is doing better than she anticipated, and she is “really excited about it.” She added that she would really like to express her gratitude toward the community and everyone who has graciously volutnteered to help support the thrift store.

Tiller said community members can continue to support the store by volunteering, spreading the word, and donating items.

“Come and volunteer,” she said. “We always need that support. And keep bringing donations. That’s how we operate.”

Desert Dream Thrift Store is only able to accept donations during store hours. Winter hours are Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. But Tiller said additional hours may be added in the future. The store does not accept donations of toys, stuffed animals, cribs, highchairs, potty chairs, infant tubs, car seats, gasoline cans, sharp tools, or any dirty or broken items.

In addition to operating the thrift store, Tiller strives to help promote autism awareness. In fact, she recently gave a presentation about autism and the store’s mission to her youngest son, Jaden’s, fourth-grade class. Tiller said increasing autism awareness helps change the way people perceive the developmental disability.

“Perceptions of autism have improved, even since [Nicholas] was born,” she said.

Tiller has a background in working with children who have special needs, but she said opening a store “is a new adventure.” She invites anyone who has questions about Desert Dream Thrift Store to “stop by and learn more about it.”

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