Story by Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photography by Kacy Meinecke
If you like shopping for a bargain or enjoy traditional Louisiana food at Wichita’s premier festival, you are helping students get a GED credential or workforce training and people with disabilities develop work experience.
Goodwill Industries of Kansas operates 19 resale shops in 15 communities, along with an online auction site, and hosts two popular fundraising events in Wichita, Blue Jean Bingo and the Cajun Food Fest at the annual Wichita River Festival. Those efforts help fund Goodwill’s local education and workforce development programs.
About four years ago, the Kansas nonprofit organization – which was founded 60 years ago in 1957 – moved to larger headquarters on Webb Road in northeast Wichita, allowing it to expand its job training programs to serve even more people with disabilities.
That’s also about the time Goodwill Industries partnered with the Wichita Area Technical College and the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas to create NexStep Alliance. The program’s classrooms, test center, study spaces and offices occupy the second floor of Goodwill’s headquarters.
Molly Fox, marketing and development vice president for Goodwill Industries of Kansas, explained the innovative program this way: “It’s a one-stop shop for getting a GED, going on to WATC to further a career and then becoming employed through the Workforce Alliance.”
The program is serving more than 500 students this year, an increase of 20 percent compared to last year, according to Chris Stanyer, the adult education director at Goodwill. The students range in ages from 16 to 75.
In January, the program added GED and English as a second language (ESL) classes at a second campus at Douglas and Grove in Wichita.
Also through NexStep, students can do concurrent studies for both GED certification and college credit courses.
The students – several of whom are overcoming difficult life challenges – receive training for in-demand jobs in the manufacturing/aviation and health care industries, with the ability to earn certification and eventually an associate’s degree through WATC. Through Goodwill’s networks, students can also find out about other services, such as accessing child care, to help ensure they achieve their education goals.
“We’re all about how to use resources to overcome obstacles,” Fox said.
Goodwill Industries of Kansas is also involved with several other new initiatives, including launching its Edgar James branded uniforms and apparel line, becoming the host site for a new adult version of a youth internship program for people with disabilities and being the first Goodwill organization in the nation to host a consignment sale.
The apparel line is named after the founder of Goodwill, Edgar James Helms. Helms was a Methodist minister who created a system of collecting used items from the wealthy and repairing them for resale to the people he was serving in some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. In 1905, his effort became known as Goodwill Industries, which is now an international organization. Helms also was an advocate of creating jobs, which is why using his name to recently brand the apparel line is a perfect fit.
Initially, the apparel line started when Goodwill Industries of Kansas created the blue mesh vests worn by workers at its resale stores. While the vests serve a practical purpose of providing a uniform look, they also provide an employment opportunity for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. The line has expanded to include medical scrubs, lab coats, safety vests and shirts with high reflective materials, and food-service aprons.
“Our goal is to help people to work,” Fox said, as she showed a visitor the sewing area where the apparel is made and where stacks of finished items sat on shelves ready for delivery.
In various different areas of the warehouse-like facility that is part of Goodwill’s headquarters, small groups of workers are employed to learn and do various other jobs, ranging from recycling and repurposing rejected or unsold donated items to fulfilling third-party business service contracts, such as making customized insulation products for a Wichita aviation company.
Recently Goodwill Industries created partnerships that will allow it to become a Project Search host site for adults with disabilities. Project Search is an international internship program that helps high school students with disabilities explore career options. Goodwill Industries is piloting the adult version of the program.
Goodwill Industries of Kansas also recently piloted a consignment sale option called the Gray Willow Fashion Exchange, which took place the first weekend of May in Towne West Square.