When Leomia Brunson first volunteered at The Closet in 1977, she had no idea that 27 years later she would be saying goodbye to what became a full-time job and somewhat of an obsession.
"She worked 10 hours a day, six days a week for heavens only knows how long," said Laura Greenspan, president of The Closet, a faith-run thrift store. "At The Closet she does everything — if she sees something that needs to be done she'll jump in and do it. She does that because partly that's the way she is and because she wants The Closet to be a success."
At a retirement luncheon at the First Baptist Church in Herndon Dec. 1, Brunson sat at a long table in front of friends, fellow volunteers and representatives from Fairfax County to honor her with certificates of appreciation and tell their respective "Leomia Tales" about how she touched their lives.
"It's your sense of humor, it's your loving and caring ways, that, Leomia, is why we're here today," said Greenspan at the luncheon.
"Every once in a while — like once in a lifetime — you meet the most unique person," said Marge Finely, past president of The Closet, who served for 11 years, "and Leomia has been that person to me."
Finely traveled from North Carolina where she has lived for the last 16 years to be at the luncheon.
"Leomia is an amazing person," she said, adding she has known Brunson for many years and kept in touch since her move. "I have never had a friend like her."
Brunson showed her appreciation to friends and family at the luncheon through her tears each time someone new stepped forward to say how much they would miss her face each day The Closet was open.
"I'm not good at feeling comfortable up in front of all these people," Brunson said after the luncheon. "I'd rather be at The Closet in the back room where nobody sees me."
Established in 1974 by a combination of faith organizations, The Closet's goal was to serve the "low-income community and provide high-quality clothing at a reasonable price," as well as toys, house wares and small electronics as a thrift shop geared toward low-income families.
Now, run by 16 churches and one synagogue, The Closet has expanded from two employees and a handful of volunteers to 13 paid employees, church volunteers and volunteers working through county community service.
DURING THE ALMOST three-hour luncheon Brunson sat next to her husband, Ernie Brunson, with her two sons, their wives and her youngest granddaughter off to her right.
Her youngest son, Terence Brunson, was mentioned a few times during remarks because he was the reason Brunson volunteered in the first place.
"We tell her she works too much, but I guess that all depends on perspective," said Terence Brunson, who at 16 years old told his mother she needed to stop worrying about him and get a job.
Little did he, or Brunson for that matter, realize that her part-time volunteering with her church would turn into a full-time job for so many years.
"When she's working six days a week, 10 hours a day she could have at least taken a weekend off," he joked.
In addition, after the luncheon, Brunson admitted there were some Sundays that only her husband knew she would sneak into the store to do additional work.
Although she was dedicated, Brunson said she has always placed her family and five grandchildren first.
"I give my family a lot of time, we do a lot together," she said, joking now that she is retiring she'll have more time to shop with her daughter-in-law during the day. "The one thing I always fit into my schedule was my family."
But Brunson said she never thought her schedule would become so full that she would have to set aside time for her family when she began as a representative from her church — Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston — for The Closet in 1977.
"The minute I stepped inside I fell in love and I never left," she said. "When the assistant manager left in 1980 I became the assistant manager and then manager in '88 when the manager left — and I have never regretted a moment of it."
Since then, under Brunson's management, the store has moved from multiple locations to where it stands now at 841 Station St.
"When the landlord kicked us out, we had to decide what we were going to do," said Greenspan about the last move before the store found its permanent home on Station Street. "We had to decide if we were going to keep The Closet going and Leomia said she would stay on for five more years, so we continued."
As well as helping find the permanent location, Brunson was instrumental in getting health insurance for the store's 13 employees — something most faith-run thrift stores do not offer.
"I will miss the people, I have met so many wonderful people, it's just mind boggling," said Brunson about her retirement. "It's wonderful the relationships I have had and the friendships I have made — a lot won't end, but some will because I won't be in the store every day — but I'll get back in, I can guarantee that."
"I BELIEVE SHE leaves us with a great legacy — a staff that is unbelievable and a staff that she has developed," said Aaron Sawyer, new manager of The Closet who worked under Brunson as assistant manager. "She came with a desire to serve and has molded my heart and I want to thank her for the opportunity to carry out her work … we're just baby-sitting [The Closet] for her."
Ellen Berkman, another Closet volunteer, stood up and read a poem she wrote for Brunson; she ended with both in tears.
"She's like a magnet — she draws people to her — and she makes all the work seem easy," said Berkman after the luncheon, adding she first volunteered at The Closet 18 years ago and Brunson is the reason she returned each year.
"She's just a sterling person to be around," she said. "I can't imagine anybody else like her."
Greenspan agreed, saying — although excited to have Sawyer take over and work with his ideas for the store — The Closet will miss Brunson's dedication and more than anything her warm personality.
"Her sense of humor, her enthusiasm, her incredible work ethic — she's just an amazing person," said Greenspan.
Each holiday season Brunson would treat the staff to a holiday dinner at a local restaurant out of her own pocket, and she made a homemade apple cake for each employee's birthday every year, Greenspan said.
"The way she deals with people, she really and truly does care about them," she said. "She conveys that she cares about them and that's going to be missed."
In addition to being recognized by fellow volunteers at The Closet, Brunson will be formally honored by the Town Council at its Dec. 14 public hearing before her last day at the store on Dec. 18.
After the rush of the holidays, Brunson said she hopes to enjoy her retirement by reading more books and enjoying more music. She is retiring now because her arthroscopic knee surgery is not healing as well as expected.
"My goal is to simply be, B-E, be," she joked. "That's something I haven't done in a long time."