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The White Elephant Sale in Old Lyme

A white elephant has symbolic meaning that differs depending where you are. In a widespread interpretation, a “white elephant” is an item that has no monetary value – its worth derives from ownership. With a white elephant sale, a new owner conveys newfound value to second-hand items. Every summer, one shoreline town gives this transfer special importance.

The gracious idea of giving new value to old things has long been at the heart of the annual White Elephant Sale – affectionately known as the “WES” – held by the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme each summer. This year’s dates are July 10 & 11.

Now in its 79th year and going strong, the First Congregational Church’s White Elephant Sale has been a long-standing tradition in this small community. Considered one of the finest affairs of its kind in New England, it began in 1920 as a local phenomenon. With the atmosphere of a charming church bazaar, the WES brings together and sells useful goods – everything from baseball gloves to sofas – and donates every dollar to local charities.

This has created a bond between volunteers and its patrons. People come from all over to talk and browse a remarkable assortment of objects, priced anywhere from twenty cents to four hundred dollars. Remnants from the WES are held for another sale in the autumn. Everything donated eventually finds a new home. Nothing goes to the dump.

The WES is run by the Ladies Benevolent Society, which uses proceeds to support food pantries, health initiatives and children’s programs locally and around the world. Support is also channeled into housing, senior care, education, and church programs. Beneficiaries have included Lyme Youth Services, Lyme Senior Center, Bikes for Kids, VNA, Women’s Center of New London, Literacy Volunteers, local soup kitchens, and Branford hospice, to name a few. There is also a mission to South Africa. While the church stages the sale and distributes the proceeds, there is healthy participation among non-members as well. It’s a genuine civic experience.

The WES has grown exponentially since its beginnings, but it remains a homegrown happening. Local volunteers return year after year – some well into their 80s. They assist with merchandise organized into 30 “departments” ranging from sports to home furnishings. Loyal shoppers and curious visitors alike gather at the ropes waiting for the clock tower bell to strike 9 a.m. People spend a lazy day hunting for buried treasure, enjoying refreshments and feeling a rare camaraderie. It’s literally a new lease on life, and you can’t find that at the mall.

To learn more about this amazing event, check out http://fccol.org/church-in-action/our-ministries/white-elephant-sale/sale-history/

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