Hello Goodwill, It's Nice to Meet You

“We’re kind of like the Kleenex of thrift stores.”

Erin Rosolina, Director of Marketing at the Goodwill-Industries - Knoxville, Inc. is younger, sweeter, and way more hilarious than I could’ve expected. She slyly drops one-liners and good-natured jokes as easily as she paints the portrait of a hundred-year-old organization I’d never fully understood.

She’s right - when I think of donating my clothes, going thrifting, what comes to mind is, “Let’s go to Goodwill.” I’ve heard interchanged with the Salvation Army, Ladies of Charity, and plenty of local organizations that assuredly have their own brand, but get lumped into this Thrift Giant unsuspectingly. Never once had I asked, “What exactly does Goodwill do?”

When Erin reached out to me via Instagram to come tour their facilities, I was floored. Having given pounds of clothing and home goods to Goodwill over the course of my life, I wanted to know what they were doing with it all, and what they were doing with the money they inevitably earned by selling it.

I had preconceived notions and some scathing opinions. Goodwill is huge.And unlike local organizations that specialize in specific services like: Providing wardrobes for individuals who are seeking jobs; Outfitting apartments for individuals who may be working their way out of homelessness; Helping recently released prisoners rebuild their lives with necessary items - I couldn’t imagine what Goodwill was doing with their resources.

What follows is a no-frills list of the work Goodwill does that I could see with my own eyes, that I could experience standing in their halls, and that I was pleasantly surprised to learn.

Goodwill helps any person with a barrier to employment get employed.

Simple as that.

What is not simple is the breadth of services that Goodwill provides and the diversity in demographics that they serve. This is a short list of circumstances that may qualify an individual as having barriers to employment:

  • Intellectual or physical disabilities

  • Criminal record or recent incarceration

  • Lack of necessary education or occupational skills

  • Economic challenges such that the individual cannot afford childcare, education, or wardrobe for employment

  • Adults never before having been employed

  • Students without work experience

  • Lacking in necessary certifications for specific employment and unable to achieve them alone

That’s a lot of people. And a lot of diversity.

Goodwill refers to anyone engaging in their services as ‘clients’ and my guides for the day, Erin and Sam, an Americorps addition to the marketing department, never once waver from using the term. I find that very respectful and after meeting some of their clients, I believe they feel the same way.

The Goodwill Knoxville facility is much larger than it appears. They serve fifteen counties including Knox county, and many of those counties are rural farming communities whose only shopping options are the local Wal-Mart. Rural stores tend to get fewer donations and even fewer items of re-sellable quality. That doesn’t stop the Goodwill Knoxville store from redistributing the masses of clothing and home goods they receive to those stores. Erin jokingly tells me that “if you want to get Banana Republic jeans or a Prada purse in Loudon… you have to go to Goodwill!”

I met some of Goodwill’s clients working in the warehouse behind their storefront, sorting through enormous piles at their stations, grading clothing and goods to Goodwill’s standard of quality. They were a diverse group, ranging from bright-faced young women to a very affectionate older man with an intellectual disability. It was chilly that day, but everyone was gracious, kind, and happy to welcome us into their working space. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, if only everyone’s co-workers could be this wonderful. The world would be a better place.”

Clients don’t just go to work for Goodwill - not by a long shot. The individuals working at Goodwill, be they clients or staff, are properly paid and employed individuals and represent a small portion of those served.

Here are some of the resources available at Goodwill Knoxville, entirely free to qualifying clients:

  • Computer Lab access, which includes computer literacy courses, remedial education courses, ~GED completion,~ and further certification and skills for specific professions

Ms Penny in the computer lab was sunshine on a cloudy day. Her disposition is not what you’d expect from someone working in a nonprofit organization with clients who come from a variety of circumstances and socioeconomic levels. She was optimistic, humorous, and genuinely loved her work. She spoke highly of the achievements that come from those in her charge and made me feel welcome from the moment I met her.

  • Retail Services classroom that educates and certifies clients in skills needed for customer service and service-industry position

For clients who feel they’re suited for a profession in customer service, such as in retail or hospitality, or for those interested in the service industry, there are courses and certification that can boost not only their knowledge but their resume as they prepare for employment. These certifications can be expensive, time-consuming, and intellectually challenging for anyone, but having dedicated staff members who provide one-on-one support through the entire education-resume-~interivew~interview-hiring process means more clients get hired.

  • One-on-one sensory and motor skills training

I found this concept to be surprising and genius. Clients with disabilities who may not have much or any experience with employment will encounter infinite unforeseen challenges when they enter the workforce. Like any of us, they must learn what they like, what they don’t like, what they’re good at, and what simply isn’t for them. Through one-on-one meetings with Goodwill counselors and generous partnership with local businesses, these clients are able to test different jobs and different environments risk-free to see what works for them. Do they enjoy people? Try bagging groceries at Kroger. Are they sensitive to noises and stimuli? Packing envelopes for a mailing agency may be just your style. If only we could test jobs out before we took them on, we might find our calling a lot quicker!

Additionally, clients without disabilities have the opportunity to test jobs and gain work experience. Goodwill sponsors client employment at nearby businesses like Regal Cinemas to help clients gain experience and build their resume. This program is geared toward younger clients aged 16 - 24.

  • Job and employment counselors whose focus is to help each client that comes through Goodwill to get employed.

This includes interview training, resume building, application assistance, even facilitating connections in the community to help an individual find the right place for them. These counselors also assist clients in getting the additional support they need during their time in a Goodwill-sponsored program. This means transportation funding and reimbursement, childcare, and much more.

  • On-site CNA training lab that in as short as seven weeks produces certified CNAs ready for employment at a Knoxville-area healthcare facility.

Anyone who has ever worked a minimum wage job can imagine the lifestyle change that happens when you go from your current wage to a living wage. In Knoxville, the minimum wage for a CNA is just about $11 per hour, quite an increase from the minimum working wage at $7.25 per hour. Any client who has completed the necessary prerequisite remedial education can apply to join the CNA program. The progress is designed for adult learners; for those who have been out of school long enough to not have the studious rhythm required for class-paced learning. Regardless, when a student reaches the completion of a Goodwill CNA program, Goodwill brings representatives from local-area healthcare providers for their CLIENTS to interview, giving the graduating clients first pick at available positions and a first-look at who their potential employers could be.

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Goodwill is a self-funded organization.

If you’re wondering where all the money they earn from your resold donations goes, it’s to their immense roster of programs and their responsible hiring practices. Nonprofits are notorious for relying on unreliable volunteers, constantly applying for grants and asking for monetary support, and experiencing internal employee issues because they lack the resources to support their staff.

Goodwill does apply for the occasional grant when they aim to make large purchases like their recent computer lab upgrade, but being almost entirely self-funded means that they can employ staff members at living wages that their clients can rely on. They aren’t subject to the whims of volunteers or the tides of monetary giving. Instead, they say, “give us your stuff and we’ll do the rest.”

I can’t speak for Goodwill as a whole because I still have so little experience with the organization. What I can attest to is the dedication, the immensity, and the impact of Goodwill Knoxville. Being a facet of a hundred-plus-year established organization and being the nearest hub to numerous rural counties is a testament to their excellence. Goodwill takes our unwanted items, carefully processes and distributes what they can use, and sells the textile waste they cannot use in huge pallet-loads to recycling firms.

Yes, Goodwill has the enormity and the resources to recycle what we would otherwise throw into a landfill.

My time spent with Goodwill Knoxville are just beginning. While I am an avid thrifter and supporter of the second-hand movement, I have a newfound passion for spreading the understanding of all that Goodwill contributes to communities. Decades pass and routine leads us to forget why we started doing something. Why do we give our clothes to Goodwill? Why is Goodwill a staple in our lives, regardless of how we feel about them?

Because Goodwill helps any person - regardless of their history, their challenges, their abilities - with a barrier to employment get employed.

Employment is independence. Independence is power. Goodwill empowers communities.

I stand by that.

You can see the original published version in Blank Newspaper.