Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida is best known for its 30 retail stores throughout its service area of Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee Counties, but few customers realize thrift outlet sales assist in job placement services, school facilities, social and recreation programs for the mentally and physically disadvantaged, and more.
“We are almost a victim of our own retail store success,” laughs Susan Hegarty, community relations coordinator. “These popular locations, including the main outlet at our office at 5100 Tice Street, as well as two bookstores and the Downtown Fort Myers boutique, overshadow all our other enterprises.” Kirsten O’Donnell, director of public relations & marketing, smiles in agreement: “The outlet is an excellent example. We roll out new merchandise every 15 minutes, and customers go crazy. People pack a lunch and make a day of it!”
Goodwill of Southwest Florida recently celebrated its 50th year with its Golden Anniversary Gala & Breakthrough Awards this past May 6. Goodwill International began in Boston in 1902, when J. Edgar Helms realized that while the poor needed much, the rich had more than necessary, so he meshed the two as a “hand up, not hand out” social enterprise. Today there are Goodwill agencies in 165 United States jurisdictions as well as a dozen foreign nations.
The genesis of Goodwill of Southwest Florida started in 1955 when then News-Press publisher Chesley Perry visited the Suncoast chapter in St. Petersburg and thought Fort Myers would benefit from its presence. A Suncoast outlet opened in Downtown Fort Myers in 1959, and incorporation as Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida occurred in 1966, with Mr. Perry as president under the St. Petersburg umbrella. It formally became its own region in 1982, and today employs over 800 with hundreds-more volunteers.
“We helped over 42,000 people in 2015, a new mark, meaning we assist 1 out of every 29 residents in our area,” explains Kirsten. “This ballooned during the Great Recession, from 8,000 in 2008 to over 40,000. We have long helped folks with disabilities to find work, but expanded during the downturn to include all people under the Job-Link Centers.” Job-Link provides resume preparation, free computer access, and on-line job application assistance.
Pathways & Trailways
An exciting new venture is Pathways to Opportunity for adults with disabilities. This is a continuing education and day training program that allows participants to focus on fields of interest to them, including life skills, money management, computers, artistic expression and wellness and physical fitness, as well as crucial social interactions like the glee club, bowling, and karaoke. The goal of Pathways is not complete independent living, but to live as independently as possible.
“Pathways remains relatively new, being in existence for 2-1/2 years,” Kirsten says. “It really breathes fresh air into our mission. We hope to expand it soon to Collier County. To visit a Pathway session is exciting and exhilarating, especially when interacting with the students!”
John is in his first year in Pathways and really enjoys it because it not only improves his life, but “we work hard here, and all look forward to lunch!” Dion likes the independence it brings, along with teaching him how to be a professional to gain employment. “I love personal enrichment, especially when we play Uno.” Micah is a musician who “plays the keyboard and am good at it!” He wants to open his own music business. Dwayne has perhaps the most important role of all: “I make everyone else smile because I am a jokester!”
Anya describes Pathways as “gaining personal enrichment to achieve your life’s goal, with the great staff who help us to live on our own. One way is through money skills: you go to Winn-Dixie with $20 but can only spend $15, so you figure out what you can buy and how much to save. You learn to stand up for yourself, say what you feel, and know you have the right to a job. With personal rights come personal responsibility.”
Trailways Camp reinforces this emphasis: it is a 4-day overnight camp offered several times a year near LaBelle. “It is just like what we remember as kids – s’mores, campfire songs, fishing, waterskiing – only Trailways is for adults with mental and physical disabilities,” Kirsten explains. “Russell attended his first camp in his life and he is 72-year-old! They are usually scared right off because for many it is their first time they are not home for the night, but by the last day there are tears because no one wants to leave.”
Youth education is essential to Goodwill. It provides High School High Tech in 13 area high schools for teens with intellectual or learning disabilities, as well as operating its own tuition-free L.I.F.E. Academy charter school for middle and high school students. These units are heavy on leadership, job shadowing and mentoring so young people acquire a firm grasp on their future.
A large section of the main office houses Goodwill Secure Shred that began in 2007 and remains one of its most successful enterprises. “We earn a profit at each business end,” Susan explains. “We charge $6 per bag to accept merchandise, then sell the final product to paper companies for recycling. Equally as important is Goodwill diversified into a high-end business, to enhance our occupations for people with disabilities.”
John Longridge, in charge of Secure Shred, says that “we do a lot of cardboard because people bring donations in boxes. We shred records from insurance companies, attorneys, and medical facilities including Lee Memorial Health System, totaling 1.8 million pounds annually. Five years ago we moved one truckload of recyclables every two months, now we do 3-1/2 monthly. This is gratifying but keeping our folks employed is better.”
Kirsten stresses that Goodwill stays current on technology and sales trends. “We began e-commerce 15 years ago. On-line is the ideal forum for jewelry as well as seasonal items we receive here but only have value elsewhere that is geographically appropriate, like snow skies and winter coats.”
In addition to day-to-day operations, there is fundraising, with Goodwill of Southwest Florida preparing for The Holidays with the 10th anniversary Festival of Trees at the Sidney & Berne Davis Arts Center in Downtown Fort Myers from November 29 to December 4. Highlights include raffling off the trees, Friday’s Art Walk & Holiday Stroll and Santa’s Block Party on Saturday. Last year’s event raised $77,000.
When reflecting upon Goodwill of Southwest Florida, Kirsten feels it is all about the people. “I love sharing our story, and those that we help, and seeing the surprised look on the faces of community members when they realize all we accomplish. We interact with such diverse groups and appreciate their unique strengths, abilities, and potential. If there is a frustration, it is getting residents to understand Goodwill is so much more than just thrift stores.”
Susan agrees, saying that “before recently joining the organization, I was an avid Goodwill shopper; my family joked they cut me off the day I rebought something I donated previously! Back then I was only taking a nibble out of Goodwill; today I swallowed the entire hook! I do not want a job but a career where I make a difference for those less fortunate; I am grateful to work where we provide that ‘hand up’ for dignity, independence, and self-respect.”
For more information, contact Goodwill at 239-995-2106 or see www.goodwillswfl.org. Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida: Donate, Shop, Change a Life!