Many of us shop at the Goodwill in hopes of finding some treasures but the next time you go, please take a look around your home to see if there is something you can donate...perhaps a pair of jeans, shoes, or shirts that you haven't worn in years ...I promise you, your donation will make a difference to another person. Please read the following story.
Sometimes It's About More Than Just the Clothes
When you work for a nonprofit, there are certain unwavering principles that guide your work. One of these is the organization’s mission. And sometimes you realize that mission in small, quiet moments as you go about your day-to-day business. And sometimes you get thwacked over the head with a not-so-subtle reminder as to why you do what you do.The latter occurred to me earlier this week and I’m still grappling with the experience.I – your fabulous DCGF – was doing what I do best: shopping at a Goodwill store.
A customer motioned to me and said, “Do you work here?” I replied in the affirmative, expecting a question about pricing or store hours or something of that nature. Instead the customer immediately asked me to help her find jeans in her size…and promptly explained to me the style, wash, and fit for which she was looking. It was a slightly unusual, but not altogether unreasonable request. So I immediately dug in and started pulling out pairs she might like. We looked through the rack for a few minutes and began to narrow down her preferences.“What about these? These?” I questioned.“Ooh, those are nice. I like a little stretch in them, you know?” she replied.“Sure, let’s see what we can find,” I continued.
And then she explained, in the same tone of voice and demeanor as she’d been using the whole time, “I’m homeless, you know. And I have a $40 voucher. I need some jeans and a couple of sweatshirts, ‘cause it’s cool out today. And a rain coat. I don’t have one.
I took a split second to process that and said, “You know, we have some really nice coats back by the wall. Do you want to look at those?” And she did. And so we continued throughout the entire women’s section. Blouses (a printed button-down coordinated with all three pairs of jeans she liked), rain coats (we found a great purple and black one – she likes dark colors), shoes (she’s a size 7 ½, but 8 will fit, too), pajamas (a plaid flannel pair were perfect for when she stayed overnight at the women's shelter, she told me), sweaters (they were on sale for .99 and she likes fleece ones with hoods), and tees (she needed a couple to wear to her doctor’s appointment later that day): all were readily available at the store and fit within her budget.As we headed toward the dressing room, I was struck by how unbelievably similar her wants and needs as a customer were to any other customer at any other clothing retailer.
I’ve worked at high-end boutiques and department stores both full-time and part-time since I was 18 years old, and female shoppers share certain nearly universal characteristics. This homeless woman knew her size, her best colors, her favorite name brands (Old Navy and Reebok), and her budget. I’ve been a personal shopper for women with virtually unlimited monetary resources who know those exact same things when they shop. In so many ways, for that short period of time, I was simply another sales associate helping another customer, and it didn't matter for a second the circumstances under which we were shopping together.Women everywhere want quality, they want value, and they want to look good when they leave they retailer with whom they’ve just spent their money and their time. This homeless woman at Goodwill was picky – and she should be! Why is her voucher any less worthy than my Visa card? She deserves to feel good about herself when she leaves the store, and I spent nearly 45 minutes from her ensuring that her shoes, jeans, tops, and even a satchel that she was able to get all coordinated and fit her well. And she and another woman from the shelter with whom she had traveled by bus to the store were trying on clothes, I critiqued their outfits and even rushed back to the racks to pick out a different garment that might fit better. At one point, I told her that she could go on in the dressing room and she said, “Don’t go anywhere. I want you to tell me if these jeans look good on me, okay?” And I did. And they looked good on her.
We were having fun and picking out great items and I was feeling pretty darn good about the whole experience until it was time for her to leave. She popped the tags off the clothes she was wearing and handed them to me: “I want to wear these out, okay?” Okay, I said. No problem. “And I want to throw away these clothes I came in with, okay? I’ve been wearing them for the last month.”
I was without words for a second. “Of course, let me get a bag for you,” I said with a smile. But my words betrayed by feelings. I get a lump in my throat as I recall how she gently folded up her old clothes, placed them in the plastic bag I held out for her, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Thank you.” Thank you…for throwing my clothes away. I told her a cursory, “You’re welcome,” but she’s the one I should be thanking.How can I not be struck by the weight of what Goodwill does when it provides clothing vouchers to homeless people who just want what everybody else does when it comes to clean clothes that fit well and look good? How can I not be overwhelmed by the generosity of the thousands of people who donate their gently used goods every year so that others might have quality items at affordable prices? How can I not be humbled by a homeless woman and her shopping companion who want me to hang around outside their dressing room so that I can critique their fashion choices?
If we’re lucky, we find a job we like and we’re able to do that job and make some money and live a nice life and generally just coast on through. If we’re really lucky, we get to love our job and take 45 minutes out of our day to be reminded why our work is so special and challenging and frustrating and redeeming all at the same time. And we get to help somebody else live a nicer life along the way.