Stuffing packing paper into a Tory Burch leather boot is hardly a favorite task for 60-year-old John Kline, a fact that became a running joke with his co-workers on a recent afternoon.
But no matter. Kline’s zeal for his work at Gateways Thrift Shop in Hopkins has never been about merchandising.
Kline, who uses a wheelchair, is drawn to the camaraderie and sense of purpose that comes from having a job, something he lost when he was laid off from AT&T in the 1990s.
Both he and his friend Sharon Palay, 59, would find other reasons to get out of their homes, even if it just meant repeat trips to Starbucks. Palay, who also uses a wheelchair, was laid off from her position at a hotel in 2008 and said she gave up looking for another gig about five years ago.
“It was really hard because I hate just sitting at home,” Palay said. “That’s kind of a sad life.”
Kline and Palay still frequent Starbucks, but now they can chat about their jobs at Gateways. It’s a boutique thrift store run by Sha’arim, an organization that for two decades has provided opportunities for Jewish children and adults with special needs.
The store quietly opened this summer in a strip mall on Shady Oak Road. Of the nine adults who completed Sha’arim’s vocational training pilot program, five went on to work in the shop.
“We already knew who they are, we know their strengths and how we can capitalize on those,” said Chana Shagalow, Sha’arim’s program director.
Layah Shagalow, Chana’s daughter and the group’s associate director, said people with disabilities aren’t always asked about their own goals in the context of job opportunities.
“We want them to learn about their abilities, to think through those and dream up possibilities of what they really want to be doing,” she said.
That idea was the inspiration for Sha’arim 20 years ago, when Chana realized another daughter, Shaina, was struggling in school because of learning differences.
Working with a handful of Jewish families, Chana set out to improve opportunities for special needs children within the Jewish education system.
Since then, the organization has expanded to provide social and recreational opportunities, and now vocational training options for people with disabilities.
“Shaina has been a driving force for this endeavor for 21 years,” Chana said, her eyes growing misty. “It means everything to be able to see her work.”
Shaina looked up from the rack of clothes she was arranging. She’s earned the nickname “Eagle Eye” at the store for her attention to detail, which she hopes she can someday bring to a job at a floral shop, a long-held dream.
“I always wanted a real job, and now I have one,” she said. “I’ve learned so much from this.”
The next class of interns will start the monthslong vocational program in January, when they will learn both the hard and soft skills needed on the job — everything from spotting stains on clothing to the appropriate distance to keep with a customer they’re helping.
Those lessons happen at the donation center in Minnetonka, just a few minutes away from the thrift shop. Chana hopes to eventually find one space that can accommodate both the donation center and retail store, and aspires to see the shop be self-sustaining.
Operating the shop has been not only a learning process for the new employees, but also for the Sha’arim staff. Chana credits the thrift store manager, Chris Martyn, for recognizing the worth of some of the more unique items that arrive at the donation center.
As a personal collector and former production manager at Goodwill, Martyn has an eye for antiques and brand names.
“It’s like Christmas or Hanukkah every time you open a box of donations,” he said.
“You never know what kind of treasure you’ll find.”
There’s an easy metaphor there, Layah said: The participants may not know their own strengths until they are given the chance to share them.
“It’s been so awesome to see the level of enthusiasm they bring to work,” she said.
For Kline, the motivation to work is simple.
“I want to feel helpful and I need to stay active,” he said. “I’m really glad to be here. More opportunities like this are definitely needed.”