Everyone knows what Goodwill is right? It’s where you can donate your clothes and books and maybe find a great deal on something someone else has donated. Well that's true, but it’s also so much more. The people and the mission behind Goodwill Suncoast is much more than I ever imagined.

What is written on the office wall in the picture above is no small statement and also not just empty words, as the programs and assistance offered by Goodwill go beyond what most people realize.

Goodwill is all about workforce development, and that is evidenced in every department and area of their complex on Gandy Blvd. Hidden behind their large store and donation center is the state’s largest female work release center. Non-violent offenders are given the option to serve out the last two years of their sentence living here instead of in prison. They are still subject to the rules of the Department of Corrections, but the center offers them ways to obtain job skills including job searching and resume building, educational services, and life skills including parenting and health classes.

The residents come and go - they will soon have over 200 residents with the addition of 40 more beds - and there’s an eight-month waiting list. The women sleep 11 per room, are required to obtain their GED if they don't have a high school diploma, and must work a minimum of 35 hours a week. Completing the GED program removes 60 days from their sentence.

Melody Marrs, who gave me a tour of this amazing facility, stated that “literacy is key.” She also points out that the women staying at Goodwill's facility save taxpayer money due to the state not paying for their custody. There is a zero-tolerance policy towards drinking, and Goodwill helps these women so that when they rejoin society outside of the system they are prepared to live a fulfilling life and be able to take care of themselves.

Goodwill has a core group of approximately 60 employers who give jobs to their residents. Paychecks are directly deposited to accounts for the residents, with 10% going to a savings account. Wells Fargo assists with teaching banking literacy, and recently a resident completed her time there and left with $13,000 in savings; enough to purchase a car. There is also a federal resident program in Tampa for both men and women with about 100 inmates. 

According to Jabar Graham, another Goodwill employee, they have 57 donation centers in ten communities and he says they are the “heart and soul” of the donation process. Donations help to reduce the amount of things sent to landfills. Jabar points out that people are “giving to an organization that gives back.”  Last year 57 million pounds of goods went through Goodwill Suncoast, and the recycle rate was 77%, decreasing the effects on the environment as well. 

Goodwill also employs more than 1200 workers throughout the 10-county area on Florida's west coast, and all are paid at least minimum wage. They also have an area where people with intellectual disabilities, such as workers with an IQ of 70 or below, are being taught repetitive skills which are easier for them to remember and perform. They teach them and help them grow within the company so they can move up to other jobs – and all of them are paid employees.

They have people working in their cafeteria, named Smiley G’s, are learning skills such as money-counting and cooking. Near their cafeteria is a stand called the Sugar Shack, with items available for residents to purchase as they head off to their jobs, which also teaches customers and clients who need a slower pace an area to learn new skills so that they can ease into a faster-paced job.

Goodwill has five housing complexes; three in Pinellas County and one each in Hillsborough and Marion counties for residents with disabilities or limited income. There is a coordinator at each location to help the residents and teach them skills such as cooking, if needed.. This allows people looking for a job to have a place to live.  Their location on 34th Street in St. Petersburg also has a job connection center, a free service to the community, which assisted over 2000 people last year with resume assistance and other personalized help with their job search.  Their newest store is located on Hwy 301 near the Selmon Expressway. The location on Gandy is 40,000 square feet – but this new distribution center is 200,000! Within the next year they will open a book room there, and when books are given to students, they always put a sticker in them that says “this book belongs to” and write their names in the books.

And you can support Goodwill in their mission next Saturday, May 19th at their Hippie Dash in Downtown Gulfport! Staff and residents are volunteering to work water tables and registration areas, plus participating in the runs too. There are races at distances of 8K, 5K, a 1-Mile Walk, and there's even a Woof & Roll for your dog and a Flower Child Fun Run for the little hippies! There's also a pre-party at Smiley G’s where they’ll have a costume party; the cafeteria and hallways are all decked out with old concert type posters to get everyone in the mood.

Find the Goodwill location nearest to you here. And for more information on shopping or things to do in St. Petersburg, stay here at 727area. And be sure to register, it's free!

Photos courtesy of author