Valerie Dittmer: Civic Award winner 2019

Published on 13 November 2019

Photo of 2020 Civic Award winner Valerie Dittmer

In a volunteer career extending 45 years, Valerie Dittmer has practised this ‘oldies but goodies’ maxim as a committed member of the city's dedicated not-for-profit sector.

“I started by cleaning cat cages in the SPCA when it was in Taonui St,” Valerie says.

It was the mid-70s. Valerie had two young children, and volunteering for the SPCA had a certain appeal.

“I needed some stimulation outside of the house, and I loved animals,” she says.

Valerie moved into the SPCA fundraising team, making and selling items for markets in The Square, and working in the opportunity shop – work she continued until the turn of the century.

During the 90s, she also became a hospital volunteer as one of the famous ‘Trolley Dollies’ who run the hospital Mobile Shop Trolley Run. The Dollies pushed trolleys stocked with food, toiletries, magazines, and newspapers around the inpatient wards on weekday mornings, meeting the retail needs of patients and staff, and also providing them with outside contact and conversation.

By the end of the 90s Valerie had also joined Methodist Social Services, helping out at Affordables opportunity shop on the corner of Lombard and Cuba St, and then when it moved to King St. The volunteer role enabled Valerie to explore her interest in antiques and old bits and pieces, while she enjoyed shop work and meeting the customers.

With her friend and fellow Affordables volunteer Doreen Clifton, Valerie realised the potential for holding a one-day antique linen sale after a successful week-long promotion successfully rehomed the shop’s excess linen stock.

The first Antique Linen/ Yesterday’s Treasures sale was a huge success, raising $3,200 and was quickly adopted as an annual fixture. Initially, it took place in premises on Cook St, before moving to St Pauls on Broadway, and then in 2012 to its present home in the Community Leisure Centre on Ferguson St.

The appeal of Yesterday’s Treasures is its ‘trip down memory lane’ immersion experience that Valerie and other Yesterday’s Treasures volunteers create. It’s a veritable ‘pageant of the past’ with overtones of a theatrical show, and takes just as much time, coordination, effort, creativity and talent to produce.

Growing to be the biggest collectibles sale of its type in New Zealand, Yesterday’s Treasures attracts customers from as far away as Auckland and Nelson. Over the years, it's probably realised in excess of $400,000, with the annual total averaging around $17,000, but peaking at an impressive $36,000.

Planning a new sale starts for Valerie as soon as the previous one is over. It involves several hundred hours assembling, sorting, repairing, cleaning, ironing, pricing and storing items which range from vintage and retro clothing, to wedding gowns, heritage items, jewellery, silverware, glassware and Kiwiana.

There are numerous production meetings to coordinate tasks and publicity, and Valerie is an enthusiastic presenter at community groups to encourage donations of estate items, as well as inviting new customers along.

Each year has a different nostalgic theme, enhanced by Valerie’s bunting, costumes and props, with modelling provided courtesy of her collection of shop mannequins: Angela-Jones, Tangerine, Portia, Cynthia, Samantha, Victoria and Rose.

Sale set-up typically takes three days, and the effort from pack-in to pack-out, involves the coordination of up to 60 staff and volunteers.

Yesterday’s Treasures raises crucial funds in support of Methodist Social Services programmes that include counselling, family support and the foodbank.

Valerie volunteers at Methodist Goodwill every Thursday morning, where the philosophy is to make prices affordable for low income families. She embraces any opportunity to speak to community groups about her work, and to share her insight and experience as a collector.

Valerie is already in the throes of ‘cheering everyone up’ by organising the next Yesterday’s Treasures ‘grand entertainment emporium’, to take place in March 2020.

“I have to do something to earn my pension – that’s partly how I look at it – but I also get a lot of pleasure out of doing it in return,” Valerie says.