BELFAST, Maine — Anne Walker and her granddaughter Emmaline Walker were leisurely shopping at the Goodwill store off Route 3 Sunday morning. Emmaline had chosen a mask that made her look like Cinderella, while Anne had picked up a children’s book and was perusing some casual clothing.
Anne has shopped at the Belfast store since 2008 when it opened. She’s also shopped at the Rockland, Bangor and Ellsworth stores, and donates items for the cause. But when asked where the revenue from her purchases goes, Walker was stumped.
“I know it’s a nonprofit,” she said, trailing off before adding that she was confident it goes to a good cause.
Walker is not alone in being unable to describe the organization’s mission, said Michelle Smith, communications manager for Goodwill Northern New England. Educating the public about just what Goodwill does is an ongoing effort, she said.
The organization is indeed a nonprofit with roots that can be traced to 1902 Boston. Edgar Helms, a Methodist minister, was concerned about the poverty that plagued many of the city’s new immigrants. He took burlap bags and collected used and damaged clothing from the city’s wealthy neighborhoods.
Instead of distributing the clothes himself, Helms hired the city’s destitute to clean and repair the clothing and then sell it. His motto was “a hand up, not a hand out.”
“It created this sustainable business model,” Smith said, a concept that still drives the Goodwill.
At the height of the Great Depression in 1933, the Northern New England chapter was established. Goodwill has since spread across the U.S. and to other countries.
“It’s always been our mission to help people,” Smith said, so they can find jobs and live independent lives.
The emphasis had been working with disabled people, disadvantaged youth and those transitioning from prison back to society. Today, the mission is both broader and more specific, running programs that are open to the general public as well as those geared to help disabled people with supported employment.
In addition to the stores, the most visible Goodwill endeavor is its job offices, which serve the general public. Goodwill operates Workforce Solution Centers along Maine’s coast, in Portland, Biddeford, Springvale, Brunswick, Rockland and Belfast. The organization has been operating the federally funded job search and training programs centers for four years.
In the early 1990s, head injuries and brain trauma began to be recognized as an under-treated medical problem, so Goodwill opened neuro-rehabilitation centers in Portland and Lewiston.
Goodwill also runs the Senior Community Employment Program in Maine for low-income people over 55, and its Good Clean business which employs people, some of whom are disabled, to clean federal and state office buildings and retail stores.
The northern New England organization operated on a $62 million budget in 2011. Though Goodwill gets federal and state grants and charitable donations, nearly $29 million of its revenue comes from sales at the stores, Smith said.
Goodwill of Northern New England operates 19 stores in Maine, six in New Hampshire and two in Vermont. The Rockland and Ellsworth stores also were built in the last few years, while the Bangor store has been updated recently. An updated store will open in Augusta in September and a new store is planned for Portsmouth, N.H.
Goodwill’s Good Neighbors program provides vouchers that local charitable organizations can give to needy people to use in the stores.
Prices at stores are kept low in an effort to assist low-income people, though customers from many income brackets frequent them. Items remain in stores for four weeks, then are moved to an outlet store, and if they remain unsold there, are recycled.
In all, Goodwill of Northern New England programs served 80,000 people last year, Smith said.
Though Walker is not one of those 80,000, she appreciates the store’s low prices, “especially in this economy,” she said. Granddaughter Emmaline also appreciates visiting the store, “Because I like to get special toys,” she said, beaming about her Cinderella mask.