The "Mercedes Lady" gets emotional when she tells the story.
She still sees clearly the desperate, poor woman at the thrift shop cash register, hoping somehow to walk away with second-hand clothes, even though she has no money. She asks manager Michael Davis whether she might pay a dollar a week.
"It broke my heart,'' recalls Janette Heina, 72. "I thought, 'Well, I'll just pay for her clothes.' And then, before I could offer, I hear Michael tell her, 'Don't worry about it.' He gave her the clothes, and I said, 'This is the kind of place I could work for. These are good people.' "
This simple act of kindness unleashed a whirlwind, a big-hearted woman who Davis says has personally accounted for a 33 percent increase in donations in the past three years at the Good Connections Thrift Shoppe in New Port Richey.
"Janette is amazing,'' he said this past week as she delivered another load of merchandise in her 2002 "desert sand'' S500 Mercedes. Volunteers may not know her name, but they all know the "Mercedes Lady.'' Davis said she has a good eye for merchandise. "Everything she brings in sells quickly.''
Proceeds from the shop benefit Connections, a nonprofit organization founded 20 years ago by Sister Joan Foley. The mission: help people develop skills so that they can find a job. It relies on county grants, the United Way, private donations and the thrift shop to operate in a small former house on Main Street.
Janette seldom misses an estate or yard sale. She likes to visit in the final hours, when everything has been picked over. She explains about Connections and asks owners about donating items. Other times, she bargains and uses her own money, which she would have donated to Connections anyway. She once paid $20 for some Czechoslovakian crystal that didn't look like much beneath an inch of dust, but when she cleaned it up, the thrift shop made quite a profit. She found a diamond ring in the lining of a purse.
She has collected antique dolls, jewelry, paintings, furniture, all kinds of clothing. She paid $1 for an official NASCAR jacket. At one estate sale, she had to call a truck to haul away five free sofas.
"It's a thrill for me,'' she said, "like going on a treasure hunt.''
Janette has also donated many items from her home in Gulf Harbors, where she has lived the past 17 years since retiring from the Dominick's supermarket chain in Illinois. She never asks how much Connections makes off the items. Last week, Davis and front counter volunteer Ed Bush, 23, had fun wrapping up in a fur stole she had found deep in her closet. "I'm not going to need this in Florida,'' she said, "that's for sure.''
Janette travels to the sales with her husband, Karl, known at Connections as the "Chauffeur.'' He's 86 and complains that she makes him do the heavy lifting. He kids her about everything. They laugh a lot.
They've been together 47 years. Karl installed commercial ovens in hotels, schools, prisons, military bases and the like. One day, he took on a project at a bakery where Janette worked in Clear Lake, Iowa. "And the rest is history,'' he said, "ancient history.''
It's useful to know where they came from when you consider their generosity. Janette was a baby when her parents were killed in a car accident in Iowa. An aunt raised her on a farm and gave food to the poor. Karl was 8 when his father died in an accident at a print shop in Boston. His mother sewed in Boston for the federal Works Progress Administration, and Karl worked at a gas station at age 12, giving his earnings to his mother for the basics. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade after an oven salesman offered him a chance to learn a trade.
"We've both needed help at various times in our lives,'' Janette said. "We don't forget.''