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Goodwill gives a hand up, not a handout

It's hard to break the cycle. People on public assistance know that. If you grew up on welfare, welfare might be all you know. Freeing yourself from that downward spiral can be a big challenge.

That's why, at the William Street headquarters of Goodwill Industries of Western New York, a little more is going on than just sorting the latest shipments of clothing.

Goodwill sits across from the Main Post Office. From the store's front window, you can see the Central Terminal and the spires of St. Stanislaus. The historic setting suits the agency, which was founded in 1902 by a Methodist minister whose mantra, true to that old Protestant ethic, was work, work, work.

Work. The concept is less glamorous now than ever. In the newsletter of Goodwill Industries of Western New York, the messages from Florence M. Conti, president and CEO, can sound tough and anachronistic.

"Everything this agency does, all that we stand for, can be summed up in one word . . WORK," Conti wrote recently.

"We believe in work, not public assistance. Work helps temper character and develops talents."

Those are fighting words. They're even more admirable because Goodwill is mostly self-supporting, taking very little from the public coffers. And because a simple steady paycheck can make a big difference in a person's life.

Take Maritza Borges, a slender woman in an apron who is sorting clothes in the back room of the William Street Goodwill.

Borges, who is 35 and was born in Puerto Rico, was looking for a job when, in October, she wandered into Goodwill.

"I was just walking around," she says.

Now, she has part-time job there.

"I never worked in a store before," she explains. "I like working with the customers, making them happy."

She also likes the bargains that surface -- like the stylish black ankle boots she's wearing.

"I used to spend, like, $75, $100 on sneakers," Borges laughs. "I don't do that any more."

To set envious Buffalonians' minds at rest, Goodwill employees don't get a discount on the merchandise, and they don't get to buy things before they're on the shelves.

They do, however, get first crack at one thing: a new life.

A back room in the William Street store exhibits a long row of old photos. No one knows the names of the people in the pictures, which were found in the basement of the former location downtown. But a man is fixing shoes; a woman is cleaning clothes. They're working.

So are the folks sorting clothes on this February morning. The atmosphere is cheery but efficient. Conti, passing through, smiles: "I tell people, 'You can talk, but make sure your hands are moving.' "

Full-time jobs at Goodwill provide a full range of benefits, including vacation, a pension plan and sick time. And should Borges want to move on and work somewhere else, new options will be open to her. She'll have cashier skills, retail experience and a stable work history.

Most important, she'll be employable.

"This is the skill of, I have to be presentable, I can be on time," says Thomas Guagliardo, Goodwill's vice president of research development. "It's raising the bar for them."

In 2005, Goodwill placed 500 needy Western New Yorkers in unsubsidized jobs.

"It's great to see the people we've helped," Guagliardo says. "We give them a hand up, not a handout."

There's one more reason to clean out your closets.

"When people drop off those plastic bags of clothes, it makes a big difference," says Maureen Pfohl, Goodwill's director of commercial operations.

"They're like a bag of gold to us."

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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