Gateways Thrift Shop Offering Meaningful Opportunities

Neely Silverman and Shaina Shagalow had come across a dusty stuffed rabbit last week, that they were prepared to throw out. Chris Martyn, fortunately, has an eye for value that the other people he works with at the Gateways Thrift Shop do not.

“Anything by Steiff is valuable, even new stuff,” explained Martyn of the small, stuffed toy from a well-known German manufacturer. “The most important part there’s a little metal button that is always in the ear. If the button is there, you’re home free and this one had the button and the tag. Even though it was a newer piece. I marked it at $40 and it took, what, a day to sell?”

This isn’t the story of Martyn being able to find value in things that we give away, but doing that in his first 10 days he’s been with Gateways is what will – hopefully keep the store heading in the right direction.

Gateways Thrift Shop, located at 4 Shady Oak Road in Hopkins, is a project of Sha’arim, which was founded 21 years ago as a Jewish educational organization for Jewish children with special needs and different learning styles. Since then, founder Chana Shagalow – who started the organization because of Shaina’s disabilities – has built on to that with the Darkaynu and Friends n’ Fun programs. In August, she opened the Gateways Thrift Shop, which offers vocational training, job placement, and meaningful employment opportunities for adults with disabilities.

“This has really been in the making for over five years,” Shagalow said. “Five years ago, I stood up at the Sha’arim auction, and I made an announcement that we were going to start the next process in what we do in this organization.

“The thrift shop has so many different parts to it and there are so many different things that people at many different levels can be doing.”

After the announcement, Shagalow traveled to Charlotte to meet with Bentzion and Rachel Groner, who run the thrift boutique Zabs Place. They said she needed to checkout “the mothership” is Our Thrift Shop, which was founded by Dave and Sandy Krikac in Nashville. Both organizations work to employ and train adults with special needs.

“(The Krikac’s) are a couple that have a daughter with profound autism, and when she graduated from all her schooling – they belong to a church that had like 3,000 families and they went out there looking for employment opportunities, and nobody would employ their daughter,” Shagalow said. “So he got this idea to start a thrift shop. Why? Low overhead, everything is donated, and there’s so many different things between the donation center and sorting and cleaning and organizing and all that.”

Our Thrift Shop has a 14,000 square foot store and contracts with Vanderbilt University and Wyndham Hotels. Gateways is not that, but Shagalow has worked to create an upscale store – not just a place that will put out anything that is donated. Often, she or Neely Silverman, who runs the vocational training program, are sending pictures to Martyn to see what is worthwhile to take from the donation center (2851 Hedberg Dr., Hopkins). 16:46

And from a picture, Martyn knows what’s worth keeping?

“Yes, most of the time,” he said.

Shagalow and Silverman will frequently send photos of the item itself, and then one of the bottom because it can help Martyn decipher specifics about a product. He frequently teaches his co-workers about the intricacies of thrifting.

He holds up a glass bowl from Imperial Glass Company, that has inlaid sterling silver. When the bowl first came in, the silver was black and tarnished – not looking like anything of value. Until he pulled out a pencil eraser.

“So if you’re ever out, you know, in the thrifting, or yard sale-ing, and you see some black things like that you whip out an eraser, and you can polish it right up and see if it’s damaged,” he said.

Said Shagalow: “What I’m learning is that people walk in and they just know, because that’s the nature of thrifting.”

Getting Off The Ground

Shagalow was not expecting a nearly five-year wait from announcing her plans to getting the store open this past August. She got a lot of help from the Krikacs and the Groners – each gave her their business plans and models to help with the initial set-up. Finding the funding took a lot of pounding the pavement.

“It’s a very specific niche, and if you don’t necessarily have someone in your life who has a special need to the extent of not been able to really be mainstreamed into a job, people don’t really get it,” she said.

A big boost of funding came from an anonymous donor that, to this day, Shagalow doesn’t know who it is.

“I got a call from US Bank from a representative from the office of philanthropy, saying there’s someone that wants to make a donation to your organization is really interested in working with kids,” said Shagalow, who went on to tell the person about the organization, but struggled with the fact that it wasn’t kids who were being served at Gateways. “I called one of my mentors, Mort Naiman, and he said that for this group, they’re going to really struggle as adults integrated into the workplace. Because for some of them, they are childlike.

“I call back the officer, and I gave her my spiel. She said, ‘Well, how much money do you need?’ I said, how much do you have?”

The anonymous donation of $75,000 was a big piece of the seed-funding that helped Gateways open. It took 15 months to find a suitable location. The location they ultimately chose had been, at one point, a thrift store. So it had changing rooms already built and was Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.

In the time it took to find the location, the vocational training program started and the donation warehouse started filling up. The program started with nine interns and five of them come to work in the store.

“During the vocational training program, they’re learning things like: What’s a proper work ethic, how to greet people in the shop, how to be helpful but giving the customer’s the space they need to shop,” Shagalow said.

Silverman said there are nine training units that she works through with the interns, and has people of all different levels of abilities that she works with.

“I have my general lessons and the things that go with it,” Silverman said. “How long it’ll take depends on the group. How everyone’s going to take it in, depends on the group.”

Each weekday, interns are in the shop for several hours doing everything from fixing displays to hanging items on the racks that line the store.

“Well, it gives me something to do rather than going to Starbucks and hanging out and doing whatever,” said John Kline, who was organizing the books and movies in the cubbies at the rear of the store. “It gives me something to do a couple of days a week. It’s more meaningful than just doing the social thing.”

Said Sharon Palay, who was working with Kline: “I like to be with people and get to know them, and be out in public.”

Both said the work is very meaningful to them.

“There are people in my building who don’t do anything they just sit home. A lot of disabled people don’t do anything,” Kline said. “Some, they have vehicles and can drive themselves and they still don’t go anywhere.”

Finding value and meaningful work is exactly what Shagalow was hoping to accomplish. It has paid off.

“They all want to feel valued. They all want to feel that they have something to contribute. And here’s the deal: They are valuable, and they do contribute. And I think that we need to give them a chance to show the community what they can do,” she said. “They are all incredible human beings. They are so committed to this. They really feel proud of their accomplishments. But you know what? That’s how we all feel. When we accomplish something. So, I’m grateful that we have an opportunity to help them shine, and that they can show the community how much they have to offer. Because they do have so much to offer.”