Yet Another Palmetto Goodwill Success Story!

Quote from 2004 article in Charleston Post and Courier:

“Robert Smith knows the feeling of being unemployed and desperate. Just two years into his marriage and three months away from becoming a father, he lost his job during cutbacks at the Ladson Coastal Center. First, Smith panicked. Then, he cried. And he worried. That was back in 1981, when unemployment figures were in double digits. Smith shared his feelings with his wife, Gwendolyn, a devout Christian who gave him a different perspective on the situation. “God has a plan for you,” she told Smith, who said he immediately accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior*.

The conversion provided Smith with his only glimmer of hope. He clung to it like a drowning man clings to a life preserver. Smith, who graduated from Bonds-Wilson High School in 1976, summoned the courage to seek work with 40 employers in the five days that followed. All but one of them closed the proverbial door on him. That one was Goodwill Industries of Lower South Carolina Inc., an organization whose purpose is to “help people achieve their full potential through the dignity and power of work.” Goodwill gave Smith the chance that has made all the difference in his life. Today, Smith is president and CEO of the organization.”

Yes, old Bob cried and worried, then he donned his life preserver, dropped to his knees and accepted Jesus. Makes me want to shed a tear as well…but not for Bob. Instead, I cry for the underpaid, harassed, and intimidated employees who ride buses or bicycles, hitch rides, or drive dilapidated cars to jobs that don’t even come close to a providing a living wage. Jobs with next to nothing in the way of either meaningful benefits or hope for the future.

I suppose there is another way to view this “success story.” In all fairness I must point out that the 2004 article also states the following:

“As Goodwill commemorates its 25th year in the Lowcountry in 2004, it has a lot to celebrate, Smith says. The foundation Kinder built at Goodwill is expanding by leaps and bounds under Smith, who is committed to running the nonprofit as he would a business.

In 1998, the year before Smith moved into the job, the organization took in $4.7 million, employed 12 people and served 300. In 2003, his fourth year on the job, it generated $17 million, employed 625 people and served 9,200. In addition, it placed 321 people in new jobs.”

Palmetto Goodwill keeps growing. It is roughly twice the size it was in 2004, generating an annual income of over $30 million. Mr. Smith deserves credit for this rapid growth. The underlying truth, however, is often obscured by statistics.

As it has expanded, Goodwill Industries has become more of a corporate entity and less of a charity. This is true not only on the local level but on the national level as well. These days it resembles just another big business rather than a charitable enterprise. Over the last decade (or two, or three) we have witnessed the greed of the “too big to fail” banks and giant corporations as they embarked on downsizing, plant closings, outsourcing, pension fund looting, bogus home loans, and mass layoffs. They have shown no concern for the common, hard working employees and awarded themselves huge bonuses (sometimes with public monies) while trying to figure out new ways to make the lives of their formerly loyal employees even more miserable than it already is. Stooping ever lower and lower so that they might shove a few more shekels into their already bulging pockets.

I would submit that, while our local Goodwill has, indeed, flourished over the years, very little of the largesse has found its way to the lower rung of the employment totem pole. I was a regular customer for many years. I met many employees, got to know them by first name, and watched them move on. I heard their stories. I knew one person who had worked at Palmetto Goodwill for six years and still hadn’t been given more than thirty-six hours of work a week. She was friendly, industrious, and hard working. I couldn’t say that she was angry about her situation. She was beyond anger. I think that resignation and powerlessness was a more appropriate characterization of her mental state.

If you are a local Goodwill shopper you will notice that their prices for donated merchandise has risen substantially over the last decade. They have embarked on a massive store building spree and are placing these expensive cookie-cutter structures all over the Lowcountry. These buildings are designed to attract a middle class clientele. The cost and maintenance of these new retail locations has to be covered by the sales generated therein…thus the higher prices. On the downside, however, they are squeezing out the really poor folks who previously depended on Goodwill as a place to find real bargains.

I now donate everything to the Salvation Army. They are out of the way but they are a much more worthwhile and honest organization than Goodwill Industries. After Katrina the Salvation Army was first on the scene, beating out the Red Cross and other charitable organizations.

Then there’s the board of directors. Are they truly interested in the well-being of Goodwill Industries or are they silent and complacent bit players in this drama? Are they there just to bolster their resumes?  Is there anyone on the board who will act as an advocate for the common workers? Won’t someone step forward to initiate a meaningful discussion into long overdue structural changes that might raise more than just a few privileged boats in what is obviously a rising tide?

*Regarding Mr. Smith’s acceptance of Jesus, I think maybe he needs to spend some time absorbing the Beatitudes. Perhaps a perusal of Isaiah chapter 58 might be useful as well. I am reading a book by Norman Mailer titled “The Castle in the Forest.” It is about a demon who has been assigned to oversee the growth and development of Adolf Hitler. There is an interesting quote found therein where the demon is musing about his own role: “Of necessity, we have become skilled at impersonating angels. Even an adult, feeling our infusion of love, tends to believe it is bona fide. I suspect Kierkegaard had just that in mind when he proposed that people had to be wary of feeling too saintly since they could not be certain of the source of such feelings. They could be working for Satan.”

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