They help fund everything from shelters for abused children to treatment of stray animals, and in the bargain, their customers get, well, bargains.
More than 25 thrift stores, many sponsored by religious and civic organizations and staffed by volunteers, dot Beaufort County, giving shoppers and volunteers the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of discovering a much-needed item or something strange and wonderful.
The nuns and volunteers at St. Helena's Franciscan Center said the center's thrift store benefits donors, shoppers and charities.
"People who want to recycle stuff can bring it in. The bargain shoppers can hunt for their treasures," Sister Sheila Byrne said, "and all the money goes right back out to the programs we support at the center."
The Franciscan Center's Thrift Store, established in 1987, supports needy families by providing services such as building materials for homes and cash for utility bills. Running a thrift shop can be a lot of work -- the center operates with the help of about 125 volunteers -- but the payoff is worth it, Byrne said.
"We've outfitted many a home on St. Helena Island," she said, "and we have people of all faiths and color pitching in. A lot of people pop in from all over. They're tickled to death to find that treasure. It's a blessing."
Across the county in Bluffton, shops such as the Palmetto Animal League's Animal House Thrift Store provide support for injured and abandoned animals. Like many other thrift shops in the area, items the store can't sell are donated to charities such as the Old Mission in Savannah, said Sara Carnrick, the store's assistant manager.
"We try our absolute hardest to sell everything and keep that money in the area," Carnrick said. "There are so many wonderful charities."
At Bluffton's Cancer Awareness Off Island Thrift store, a generous few have donated items such as boats and RVs, said proprietor Karen Matthews. The Cancer Awareness store provided nearly $500,000 to local cancer patients, missions, the Red Cross and the Guardian Angel Christmas Wish program in 2009.
Matthews recently opened a second thrift store off U.S. 278, which she plans to expand. She said local residents' generosity makes it all possible.
"We're a 'department store of thrift,' " she said. "You can always find what you need, and it's all organized by color, size and style. It's not junk."
Cancer Awareness customer Greg Shumaker, 22, and his family, who are visiting his aunt in Bluffton, planned to hit all the thrift stores during their trip, including their favorite, The Bargain Box on Hilton Head Island, one of the oldest volunteer-run thrift stores in the county. Since 1965, the nonprofit organization has donated more than $10 million to local charities and social agencies, according to its website.
"I've shopped at thrift stores all my life, and these are some of the best," said Shumaker. "Pretty much my entire wardrobe is from thrift stores."
On Hilton Head, six nonprofit shops cooperate with one another and award cash grants and support to more than 50 local charities and social agencies. Shoppers can find treasures and goods of all kinds, such as furniture, clothes, jewelry, books, antiques and appliances.
At St. Francis Thrift Shop on the island's north end, 280 volunteers and general manager Hal Wieland stay busy sorting donations and greeting customers. He said the shop donates about $80,000 per year -- totaling about $1 million in its 10 years of operation.
"People love our smiling, friendly faces," Wieland said. "We meet people from all walks of life while serving a great niche."
Wieland said the local thrift store industry has grown increasingly competitive in recent years. He attributed it to the abundance of willing volunteers, generous residents, loyal shoppers and a successful business model.
Michelle Cox, 41, a nurse, is one such shopper.
The Bluffton resident and mom stops by the store about once a month to see what's new. St. Francis and other local thrift stores satisfy her urge to bargain hunt, and she said the quality of the goods keeps her coming back.
"When I first moved here, I didn't have anything -- no furniture, nothing," Cox said as she cradled three palm-tree "Lowcountry-style" throw pillows in her arms. "I recycle things after my daughter uses them. And there are people who are really in need who come to shop, too. It's exciting and absolutely unique."