Every Tuesday and Thursday at 9am, Curtis, Chris, and Franco roll into the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society North Island thrift shop for their volunteer shift. Accompanied by job coach Fatima De Leon, the three young men sort and organize donations and test donated electronics. These new recruits to the thrift shop’s volunteer corps are making a meaningful contribution to the shop, working hard, and having fun. Curtis, Chris, and Franco came to the shop through Partnerships with Industry (PWI), [www.pwiworks.org] a San Diego-based nonprofit that matches adults with disabilities with supported job opportunities, both paid and unpaid.
“Like many Society thrift shops, North Island has struggled to find enough volunteers to staff the shop on weekdays,” explained NMCRS North Island Director Traci Schuck. “We’ve had to close many times due to staffing issues.” Schuck learned about Partnerships with Industry because her daughter is autistic and has worked successfully at several jobs through supported employment. “I’ve appreciated the relationship with PWI for my daughter, and then I realized it could be a great way to augment volunteer staffing at the thrift shop.”
Through PWI’s group volunteer placement program, a job coach brings three or four workers to each assignment and supervises and mentors them throughout the session. PWI’s clients choose their volunteer work based on their interests. PWI Job Coach Fatima De Leon had taken Curtis, Chris, and Franco on excursions to thrift stores, department stores, and other retail stores. “What sparked their attention to want to volunteer at the thrift store was first visiting other thrift stores in the community and seeing how different they are than department stores,” explained De Leon. The young men liked the small, intimate nature of a thrift store.
Schuck worked with PWI Senior Client Services Manager Erica Yenter to complete applications for the three volunteers to be eligible to work on base. “Once we had the opportunity to go to the naval base to fill out the paperwork and learn about their roles and responsibilities at the thrift store, that made it a reality,” said De Leon. “They were so pumped up to start volunteering and learning new things. Getting their ID passes to the naval base also made them feel like they were accepted as a part of the team.”
Schuck spent time at the thrift shop during the new volunteers’ first week to help orient and train them. “Not knowing the scope of their abilities until we got started, I wasn’t sure how this new venture would work,” she said. “I’m thrilled to report they are working out wonderfully!”
“The three young men have varied skill levels,” she explained. “Curtis is high functioning and we expanded his duties to include testing of anything electronic, which worked great for him. He was also pricing items with help from the job coach at the end of the second day. I said, ‘Curtis, here’s this printer. Can you figure out how to test it to see if it works, without a computer to connect it to?’ I walk away for five minutes and when I come back, he hands me a scanned picture of his hand. The printer sold that day.”
“Chris has a sweet personality and loved working with two of our volunteers organizing the pants racks. He was focused, worked well with others, and helped reorganize all of the men’s, women’s and children’s areas. Franco needs the most direct support and he helped sort the bags of clothes, hang items, and straighten up.”
“In my role as job coach, I guide them and answer their questions, and I also volunteer,” said De Leon. “I help them sort out the clothes and put them on the sales floor. Typically, the guys will ask me to check their sorting before it goes on the floor because they like to double check if it’s good to go.”
Other volunteers and the shop’s customers have embraced the volunteers. “They’ve all been well received by the customers, who have been extremely positive and encouraging,” Schuck said.
“They interact well with other volunteers and customers,” agreed De Leon. “I know they look forward to working with the volunteers because they talk about them on our way back to the program. The shop feels like a home environment where everyone helps you and teaches you the responsibilities of the house. And it’s a lot of laughs with the team.”
“It’s totally a win-win situation for us,” Schuck said. “Without them volunteering, I might not be able to keep the shop open Tuesdays and Thursdays. And it’s an amazing opportunity for these young men. The second day they volunteered, I asked them how they felt about it so far. One of them said, ‘I’m so proud I have a job to go to!’ These kind of opportunities are hard to come by for adults with disabilities. I encourage other thrift shops that need more volunteers to explore similar partnerships with community organizations. Their abilities outweigh their disabilities and they are so focused and willing, and they do great work.”
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso