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Sunday, 25 May 2014 22:00

Goodwills get creative to address community needs

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The Grand Rapids-area Goodwill organization placed donation boxes inside local apartment buildings in hopes that people would donate more often if it was convenient for them. The Grand Rapids-area Goodwill organization placed donation boxes inside local apartment buildings in hopes that people would donate more often if it was convenient for them. COURTESY PHOTO

For Goodwill nonprofits across West Michigan, donations of clothes and other household items help fuel the regional organizations’ efforts to provide people the training they need to become self-sufficient.

But when potential donors are holed up because of bad weather or they’re choosing to hold onto their items rather than donate them to a Goodwill, the organizations can feel the pinch.

That’s exactly what happened earlier this year, said spokespersons from local Goodwills.

“The weather hammered everyone in the retail and restaurant trade,” said John Dillworth, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Southwestern Michigan. “We lost six days of sales between January and March.”

Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids faced similar challenges, said Jill Wallace, the nonprofit’s chief marketing and communications officer, who noted the abnormally cold weather this winter and the large snowfall had a chilling effect on donations.

“Our first quarter was really rough due to the weather,” she said.

While donations and sales are back up at the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo Goodwills, Wallace said she thinks people are also upcycling or hanging on to items for a longer period of time and trying to repurpose them rather than donate them as they ordinarily would.

That’s forced the organization to get creative in seeking donated items that can be sold in its stores, she said.

“We are trying to be more convenient and have set up permanent donation bin sites in locations like the 616 Lofts,” Wallace said.

Goodwill Industries of Southwest Michigan has nine stores, including one that opened less than a month ago in Stevensville. The Grand Rapids Goodwill operation has 19 stores and is looking to open another one in a location that it has not yet been made public, Wallace said.

Donors and shoppers see the consumer-facing side of the business but may not realize the donations to the retail stores and the revenue the outlets generate are critical to the real mission of Goodwill. The organization was founded to give individuals opportunities to further their education and bolster their skill sets so they are able to find jobs that will lead to self-sufficiency.

“Our store revenue is how we fund almost everything we do today along with matching funds from the community,” Dillworth said. “If it’s valuable, there should be community investment along the same lines.”

The organization helps address a key disparity in the community that correlates education levels to economic prosperity, Dillworth said.

“If one doesn’t at least have a GED, it’s really, really tough out there,” Dillworth said. “Since we’ve been involved with the Kalamazoo Promise, we’ve gotten pretty involved with people who have been left behind. A lot of age groups haven’t got the education for the jobs that are out there. If someone is looking for a quick fix to this situation, it doesn’t exist.”

The same is true in Grand Rapids, where people continue to come through Goodwill’s doors looking for a magic bullet, Wallace said. What the organization offers is varying degrees of “hand holding” to get clients ready before they enter the workforce, she said.

For example, Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids’ flagship ACHIEVE program works with individuals to develop skills — such as basic hygiene, how to ride a bus, how to deal with conflict — and helps them create a plan of action.

Apprenticeships and internships also serve as a training vehicle for learning and perfecting these skills.

Wallace said there are many opportunities out there for people as companies are having a tough time filling positions for skilled jobs.

“We are partnering with Grand Rapids Community College on how to get people into skilled labor positions,” she said. “A lot of these people will apply for these jobs, but many will fail the drug test or don’t have the necessary people skills.”

The apprenticeship model is one Dillworth would like to see make a resurgence across West Michigan because employers who invest the time and resources in such programs would “be pleasantly surprised at what they would get.”

The Muskegon-based Goodwill Industries of West Michigan is also investing in its workforce training offerings. The nonprofit recently broke ground on a 7,750-square-foot addition at its headquarters on Apple Avenue to house a new career center that’s expected to open this fall and consolidate services from an oversized location that the organization rented.

The site will offer financial literacy training and free tax preparation services, GoodTemps temporary staffing services, and other job-related programs, according to a statement.

In Southwest Michigan, Dillworth’s agency is also focused on educating clients in financial literacy to help families succeed through a partnership with Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services.

The Kalamazoo-based organization, like other Goodwills, has also found itself focusing more on education at a younger level. It offers a Life Guides program that works with families who have children under age 3 to position them to be able to go to college and earn a degree as a way to break the cycle of poverty. Two Life Guides are currently working with 34 families.

“Families are nominated by a nonprofit, a school or even a business,” Dillworth said. “Most of the families in poverty have a relationship with some agency. If they just got a couple of breaks they could make it. We are looking for folks who are willing to make a commitment that involves wanting to make a different life for their kids. Families in poverty are making decisions based on today or tomorrow. It’s really about changing a mindset to look at the long term.”

The agency also offers literacy classes for individuals aged 20 and older through a partnership with the Kalamazoo Literacy Council in which people can get help regardless of their literacy level, Dillworth said.

“The education piece is not the normal mission for Goodwill,” he said. “But before someone can get a job, they’ve got to have the skill set — and jobs today require a higher level of skills. Without addressing the basics, any job is temporary.”

Read 4535 times Last modified on Sunday, 25 May 2014 21:52

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