Hello, Goodwill Knoxville, it’s nice to finally know you

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After years of mindlessly donating to the charity without understanding its process, I went to the source to learn how it works

“We’re kind of like the Kleenex of thrift stores,” says Erin Rosolina, director of marketing for the Knoxville division of Goodwill Industries-International. Younger, sweeter and way more hilarious than I would have expected, she slyly drops one-liners and good-natured jokes as easily as she paints a vivid portrait of a hundred-year-old organization I’d never fully understood. And she’s right concerning the above statement.

When I think about donating clothes or going thrifting, what immediately comes to mind is, “Let’s go to Goodwill.” I’ve heard the name be used interchangeably with the Salvation Army, Ladies of Charity and plenty of local organizations that assuredly have their own brandings, but I mostly hear them get lumped under the umbrella of the thrift giant. Everyone has a vague concept of what services the organization provides, yet never once have I asked, “What exactly does Goodwill do?”

When Rosolina reaches out to me via Instagram and offers to lead me on a tour of the facilities here locally, I am floored. Having given literal pounds of clothing and home goods to Goodwill over the course of my life, I want to know what the organization does with all of its donated materials, as well as what it does with the money earned through their sale.

I admit to having had preconceived notions and some unfounded, scathing opinions of the organization prior to my visit. Goodwill is huge. And unlike local entities 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; and helping recently released prisoners rebuild their lives with necessary items, I couldn’t imagine what Goodwill was doing with its resources.

What follows in this account is a no-frills description of the work Goodwill does that I could see with my own two eyes, that I could experience standing in its halls and that I was pleasantly surprised to experience.

Goodwill helps any person with a barrier to employment get employed. Simple as that. What is not so simple is the breadth of services that Goodwill provides and the diversity in demographics that it serves. The following 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.’ My guides on the day I visit, Rosolina and Sam, an AmeriCorps-sponsored addition to the marketing department, never once waver from using that term. I find it to be very respectful, and after meeting some of their clients, I believe they feel the same way.

The Knoxville Goodwill facility is much larger than it appears from the outside. It serves 15 counties including Knox County, but many of those counties consist of rural communities where shopping options are limited. Rural stores tend to get fewer donations and even fewer items of re-sellable quality. That doesn’t stop the Knoxville Goodwill hub from redistributing the mass of clothing and home goods they receive to those outlier stores. Rosolina 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 meet some of Goodwill’s clients who work in the warehouse behind the storefront, sorting through enormous piles at their stations and grading clothing and goods according to Goodwill’s standard of quality. They are a diverse group, ranging from bright-faced young women to a very affectionate older man with an intellectual disability. It is chilly on this day, but everyone is gracious, kind and happy to welcome us into their work space. I can’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 longshot. The individuals working at this location, be they clients or staff, are properly paid and employed, and they represent only a small portion of those served. The following are some of the resources – entirely free to qualifying clients – available at the Knoxville Goodwill hub:

  • Computer lab access, which includes computer literacy courses, remedial education courses, training for specific professions and certification programs

Ms. Penny in the computer lab is 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 is optimistic and humorous, and I can tell that she genuinely loves her work. She speaks highly of the achievements that have come from those in her charge, and she makes me feel welcome from the moment I meet her.

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

For clients who feel they’re suited for a profession in customer service such as retail or hospitality, or for those interested in the service industry, there are courses and certifications that can boost not only their knowledge, but their resumes, as well, 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/interview/hiring process means more clients get hired.

  • One-on-one sensory and motor skills training

I find 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 partnerships 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 just may be your style. If only we could test jobs before taking them on, we might find our calling a lot quicker!

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

  • Job and employment counselors whose focus it is to help each client that comes through Goodwill find employment

This includes interview training, resume building, application assistance and even facilitating connections in the community to help an individual find the right place for him/her. These counselors also assist clients in getting the additional support they need during their time in a Goodwill-sponsored program. This means transportation funding/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 Tennessee 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 an actual living wage. In Knoxville, the minimum wage for a CNA averages about $11 per hour, quite an increase from the minimum working wage of $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: 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, the organization 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.

Goodwill is a self-funded organization. If you’re wondering where all the money it earns from your re-sold donations goes, it’s to its immense roster of programs and responsible hiring practices. Nonprofits are notorious for relying on unreliable volunteers, constantly applying for grants and asking for monetary support. Often, they experience internal employee issues because they lack the resources to support their staff.

Goodwill does apply for the occasional grant when it aims to make large purchases like the recent upgrade to its computer lab, but being almost entirely self-funded means that it can employ at living wages staff members on whom its clients can rely. It isn’t subject to the whims of volunteers or the tides of monetary giving. Instead, as the motto goes: “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. To what I can attest is the dedication, the immensity and the impact of the Knoxville hub. Being a well-functioning facet of an organization established more than a century ago and being the nearest source for numerous rural counties is a testament to its excellence. Goodwill takes our unwanted items, carefully processes and distributes what can be used and sells the textile waste that cannot be used 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 the Knoxville hub is just the beginning for me. While I am an avid thrifter and a 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?

It is because Goodwill helps any person – regardless of history, challenges or ability level – with a barrier to employment find employment. Employment is independence, independence is power and Goodwill empowers communities. That’s something I can stand behind.

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