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Goodwill Industries of Rhode Island has gone through several name changes over the last century and half, but they’ve always shared the mission of their current parent organization: that’s helping the needy and disabled with “a hand up, not a hand out.”
Each year as many as 2,000 people will come through the doors of their Houghton Street headquarters in Providence, all seeking training that will make them part of the workforce. “Giving someone shelter and food when they need it is very important,” said Jeffrey Machado, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization. “But at the end of the day the key is getting people out of their predicament.”
On Nov. 9, Goodwill will celebrate 150 years of service with a gala at Quidnessett Country Club in North Kingstown.
The organization got its start back in 1863, and was then known as the Irrepressible Society. The members were wives and daughters of prominent Rhode Island businessmen, who were looking to assist disabled veterans returning from the Civil War. From time to time they also collected blankets and other relief items to send to victims of disasters, such as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
In 1945, they became Community Workshops, and purchased a 40,000-square-foot building at 100 Houghton St., which still serves as their headquarters.
The Houghton Street building provided space for workshops, and the group signed contracts with Rhode Island businesses to have their clients make costume jewelry and safety glasses. In addition to providing people with work and income, the workshops also gave staff the opportunity to evaluate clients to determine what additional services they might need or where they could be employed.
In 1996, the nonprofit underwent an accreditation review. One of those on the panel was an executive with Goodwill Industries, a global organization that provides similar vocational and therapeutic services across the nation and in 17 other countries. He noted the organizations both focused on the same issues, and suggested a merger. The next year Vocational Resources became Goodwill Industries of Rhode Island, and adopted the parent organization’s logo, which shows the letter “g” stylized into a smiling face.
Today, the organization works not only with disabled clients, but also with people who struggle with language barriers and lack of job training. Clients are sent there by state or city agencies that then pay a fee to Goodwill. Most clients come from the state’s Office of Rehabilitation Services, which assists people with diagnosed disabilities. The state’s Department of Labor and Training sends workers who need retraining because the jobs they once held no longer exist, perhaps because the company that once employed them closed. The R.I. Department of Education hires Goodwill to run classes on English-as-a second language. The organization also provides programs for the Providence/Cranston Workforce Board and the Providence Youth Center.
“We’re seeing more and more clients with multiple barriers to employment, everything from child care issues and transportation issues to prison records and substance abuse problems,” Machado said. •