Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 17, 2020

Goodwill hunting for relief

Lockdown decluttering a bonanza for seekers of second-hand bargains

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, themes have emerged: resilience, flexibility, initiative. And in those early days in March and April, housecleaning, so much housecleaning.

So what to do with that third set of silverware that never got used, or the boxes of toddler clothes that belonged to the high-school senior ready for college? Or the sofa that finally was liberated from the junk room and hauled to the driveway?

Long lines of loaded cars and trucks formed daily as these items and many others  found its way to Goodwill stores and donation sites. Which would have been great, except that Goodwill locations, like the rest of the country, were closed. What did they do with the influx of items while there were no employees to sort, tag and display it? And no stores to sell it from?

Across Tennessee, Goodwill staffers found a way.

Chattanooga’s double whammy

In Chattanooga Goodwill Industries’ reopening efforts have been complicated by an April 13 tornado that destroyed a building that housed a retail store and training center, says Jim Stailey, chief operations officer.

“One of our board members is also on the local health board, so we’ve had really good guidance from the beginning,” Stailey says. “When the stay-at-home orders came out, we had already been closed for a few days. Then we made decisions about how and where people could drop things off, because we didn’t want piles of stuff creating a hazard outside the facilities.”

The solution was to stand up a skeleton crew, with donations trailers staffed by a single person. Boxes were placed outside the donation area, so donors could self-service and follow signage on how to drop things off. The donation centers also suggested people remain in their cars, pop the trunk and let staff do the rest. From there, it was a matter of sorting, separating and prepping, Stailey adds.

“Early on we knew very little about how long the virus lived on surfaces, so we quarantined everything for plenty of time,” he points out. “And at the same time, we were preparing the stores for social distancing and also making sure we had appropriate protection for employees when they came back.

“Our approach was to get ready for what we’d call a ‘grand reopening,’ taking advantage of the shutdown to do all the little projects you never have time to do. And we also taped the floors, got the signs up, put up the plastic barriers … all the things to be ready.”

And when the time came to reopen, those early shoppers were greeted with a bonanza.

“We underestimated just how bored people were at home, and how much time they spent doing clear-outs,” Stailey says. “So we had a lot of donations and not much staff to sort them. So we stored and stored and stored some more. Now we’re rebalancing the scales, getting merchandise moved out so we can get more of the new donations out on the floors.”

In addition to the tornado damage, the team also was dealing with two sets of state guidelines. That’s because Goodwill Chattanooga has a 23-county range – 17 in Tennessee and six in Georgia. All told, it took the better part of a month to get stores reopened, with most back to regular operations by late May or early June.

And as in Knoxville, job-training operations have followed close behind.

“We were able to keep some of those functions running the whole time, as well as things like our furniture bank, because that only had a single employee,” Stailey says.

“But then we had the tornado. So now we are doing virtual assessments as well as what in-person services we can offer. That way we are connecting people with our partners in the community who may have jobs or other needs. We’re kind of acting like a referral service, bridging the gap where we can with people who have job, food or other needs.”

The hope is to have retail-certification and other coursework and training back online by mid-July or soon after, he says, depending on how quickly Goodwill and its various partners in this area can coordinate their efforts. It’s been a heavy lift, but one that is paying dividends for the people served by the agency.

“We got a lot of stuff and we’re eager for people to come and buy things,” Stailey says. “We have had great support, and even with all that has happened we are excited about all the programs we continue to offer, and all the work we’ll be doing in the months ahead.”

Knoxville: Still needs donations

“We were shut down for six weeks, but were able to keep some donation centers open,” says Cindy Dodson, special events/marketing coordinator for Goodwill Industries-Knoxville. “We put that information up on our website so that people would know the address and hours. And we also had some of our staff going by our retail locations to see if donations had been left at the back doors so we could get those stored as well.”

The thousands of items that came in were largely household items and small furniture, although some bigger items and appliances came through. Even though stores were closed, the influx is still needed, Dodson says, to offset annual events that boosted donations.

“This is normally the time of year we do a material drive with elementary and middle schools in three counties,” she explains. “And the rise we’d normally see from university residence halls emptying didn’t happen, so that drive was called off as well. We were in need of what we’ve gotten, and we are grateful that people remembered us.”

Goodwill Industries-Knoxville has a 29-store footprint as well as multiple standalone drop-off centers. It covers 15 counties in East Tennessee. In addition to the stores, it and its sister operations around the state also run a robust job-training operation, which also was closed for several weeks. All were offline from March 21 through May 2, when the stores reopened, and things are beginning to settle down somewhat.

“We made the decision to quarantine all of our clothing items that came in for 72 hours before putting it out on the retail floor, when we first reopened,” Dodson says. “We have also been very diligent on signage and other measures so that employees and our customers could be protected.”

On the jobs front, Goodwill is in need of people for its own stores as well as for its training programs, she adds.

“We have reopened our training center because we offer so many options, like a certified nurse assistant program, and our computer lab, that will help people during this time,” Dodson says.

“So many people were laid off and remain out of work, and we want to be sure that we can safely provide them with new skills. We brought people back to our classrooms in late June, with all the social distancing needed and requiring masks.

“We are offering counseling services, helping people scale up their resumes for this new job market we are in, as well as offering things like our Google IT programs, which is virtual training that lets people prepare for entry-level IT work.”

All told, she says, Goodwill in Knoxville has weathered the storm so far. Now she hopes more people have become aware of all that it offers and can tap into its benefits.

“When people donate and shop with us, they provide support for all our training and other programs,” Dodson says. “Without those, we wouldn’t be able to help people like we are now who still want to learn a new skill, or just obtain the confidence that they can do something new. We love to help people fulfill their dreams, so we hope those donations keep on coming.”

Nashville’s first-ever overflow sales

In the state capital, Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee handled the upsurge in donations equally well, and since has been posting strong sales numbers, says Christopher Fletcher, public relations and communications manager.

“Normally people bring in a car or truck load on Saturdays vs. smaller amounts during the week, “ Fletcher says. “It’s like we’ve had three months of Saturdays.”

Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee serves 48 counties in Middle and West Tennessee, with 29 retail stores, two outlets, around 60 donation sites and eight career centers. Its shutdown ran from March 23 until April 29, when limited reopening began. Like its counterparts, the agency benefited from those massive garage, basement and attic clear-outs, and one person’s clutter became its latest revenue generator.

“We have so many loyal and generous donors, and now we believe we have many more,” Fletcher adds. “Our vice president of donations, who was worked for many different Goodwill organizations nationwide for more than 20 years, says he’d never seen the volume of donations we are getting right now.

“And because of all the health and safety changes we made, those are being processed safely and ready for purchasers to discover and enjoy.”

As elsewhere, Goodwill in Middle Tennessee is adjusting to a new normal of tape-marked standing spots on floors, Plexiglas dividers, rolling bins at donation centers to enhance social distancing, and much more. And even with all that, the donations just keep coming.

“We’re at about 75% compared to last year, but that’s with temporary closures, fewer staff, shorter hours … if we were at our regular schedule we would have gotten so much more,” Fletcher says. “As it is, we have had to tell people with large donations, like couches and bookshelves, to please wait until we had all the stores reopened and fully staffed so we could provide assistance.”

The agency had so much overflow that first-ever warehouse sales were held on consecutive weekends. That, plus more stores back online, has helped make up for the revenue shortfall during closure, Fletcher says.

“We’ve been getting great quality stuff, and that translates into real opportunities for our shoppers,” he says. “When we went back to normal operating hours in early June, we began to run about 5% ahead of where we were last year at the same time in terms of sales.

“We are hoping that improves in July, which will help us hire more staff and get all this merchandise out on the floors even faster.”

To that end, he points out that his agency, like its counterparts around the state, is hiring as well as reopening its job-training centers to help people find work elsewhere.

“We can help people get back to work right now, not only with Goodwill but with dozens of employers throughout the area,” Fletcher notes.

“There are a lot of services in high demand right now, and we think that will increase. Our mission is to change lives, and that’s’ why 98% of our funding goes into our career services program. So when people donate and shop, they are helping those people who walk into those centers, or engage with us virtually, to find a new opportunity. We are so grateful that they brought all those cleared-out items to us instead of sending them to the landfill.”