Inspired by a dream and named after a combination of joyful expressions, Yeehaw Aloha is not your ordinary thrift store. Laurel (Starr) DeLong (G02) and her husband, Gabriel, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Opened nearly three years ago in Walla Walla, Wash., the store is not just a business, it’s the means to an end: helping youth. It’s so successful that by the end of February the operation is doubling in size and moving into a two-story building across the street.
That’s the latest step in the ultimate goal of establishing a youth center for the city of 31,000. The new center, to be called Stepping Stones Youth Adventures, will occupy the second floor and give kids a free, safe place to have fun, make friendships, get something to eat and even find shelter. Opportunities will include year-round activities such as video games, ping pong and pool, computer stations, homework sites, and chances to hear visiting speakers. “I never could have envisioned this,” she says. “God is the orchestrator.”
DeLong majored in fashion merchandising at George Fox, a degree that “fits perfectly” because her unusual store uses her training in apparel and visual design. Later she earned a second bachelor’s degree in apparel design from the Portland Art Institute before working as a graphic designer for eight years in Walla Walla, where she is worship leader for Journey Church.
Yeehaw Aloha is the vehicle that will eventually make the youth center possible, but it’s just the latest way the business is helping the community. Since its founding, 10 percent of each day’s sales go to various nonprofits ranging from a children’s museum to Young Life.
In fact, it’s Gabriel’s experience organizing yard sales for Young Life, which raised tens of thousands of dollars over the years, that first inspired the idea of opening a thrift store.
The DeLongs started out with a small space in an existing store and began asking for donations of “leftovers” after city residents held their own garage sales. While they still pick up some items on request, most donations now come directly to the store, which has an adjoining warehouse in the back.
The store averages more than 100 customers per day who come in to take advantage of low prices and make an impact on their community. Laurel and Gabriel also pray with and for customers, introduce them “to the atmosphere of his presence for the first time through worship music playing in the background,” give encouraging words, and acknowledge that customers are valuable contributors toward the youth projects, no matter how much they spend.
“More and more people are cheering us on as we share with teenagers our only hope to overcome the tragedies of this world,” she says.