By Cara Peters
UPDATE: In the weeks following my interview with Awesome Al, the damage to his knee worsened and he was ordered by his doctor to cease his volunteer work. This comes as sad news to the Angels of Hope staff, who will miss him and wish him well on his road to recovery.
At 88, Alfred Parodi has spent the past decade devoting his time and work effort to non-profit organizations. He’s proud to say that he’s never accepted a dime for it.
A volunteer at the Angels of Hope thrift store in Arcata, California, Parodi is known by the local community as “Awesome Al.” The only white-haired member of the store, he’s easy to recall. He runs the cash register and helps keep the store organized.
When talking to shoppers, Parodi says most things with a grin and a light chuckle. He says it’s his aim to elicit a similar response. He brings oversized pens adorned with Disney characters to work, which he calls his, “smile makers.” When receipts need a signature, he tells shoppers to, “Pick a smile-maker and sign.” Customers take note of his friendliness.
“I come in at least once a week, and Awesome Al is usually the first person to greet me,” says William Bodway, a 29-year-old Kneeland resident. “Even if I don’t find something to buy, I stop at the counter to talk. He’s the part of the reason I choose Angels instead of other thrift stores.”
Parodi, a retired banker, began volunteering after moving to Mckinleyville in 2005. His wife of 33 years had just passed away, and through his grief counseling support group, he learned of the opportunity to volunteer at the Arcata Hospice Shop.
“Most people don’t understand how hard it is to lose someone,” Parodi says. “The counseling was helpful because I was able to hear other peoples experiences with loss, and I found that volunteering helped because I was able to focus on the community.”
He spent a year at Arcata Hospice Shop before making the switch to the newly opened Angels of Hope, a non-profit thrift store of that provides job training for underprivileged teens.
For Parodi, it was the opportunity to work with kids that prompted the job change.
“I love kids, always have. The kids that come in here to train are all very nice, we’ve never had a bad one,” Parodi says. “Once they’re done working here, they keep coming back as customers. I’ve seen a lot of them grow up and into adults with kids of their own, now. That’s one of my favorite parts of the job.”
Parodi also enjoys chatting with customers, and he’s always willing to listen to what they have to say. On his shift, he keeps a sign on the counter that reads, “Everyone has a story. Have the patience to listen, the wisdom to learn,” a quote from an unknown source.
Parodi says that he lives everyday by that quote. “Most people have gone through a lot in their lives, and have something interesting to say about those experiences. They may not know it, but they’ve got a story worth telling. I always try to listen.”
When he’s not at the checkout counter, Parodi keeps the store in order and helps stock shelves as new items come in. After a recent knee-injury, he now requires the help of a walker. While this of course slows him down, he still manages plenty. This effort does not go unnoticed by the teens hired at Angels of Hope.
“Al gets a lot done here,” says Dakota Burr, a current youth employee. “It’s been inspiring for me to see that. No doubt that it’s taught me a thing or two about giving back.”
Shannon Hardin, the store supervisor, is also grateful for the hard work and dedication that Awesome Al has put into the store.
“He’s been with us almost since we first opened, and he’s totally helped the store succeed. When you’re a non-profit business just starting out, having a consistent volunteer makes a world of a difference,” says Hardin.
Though Parodi will soon undergo a surgery on his knee, he doesn’t anticipate that it will slow him down. He has every intention of continuing his volunteer work once he is healed.
“I’ll be 89 in a few weeks, but I don’t feel it aside from my messed up knee,” Parodi says. “I plan to work here as often as I can, for as long as I can.”