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Thrift store Karibu opens doors to developmentally disabled workers

03/12/2015 05:03 EDT | Updated 05/12/2015 05:59 EDT
Vivian Keels beams when her four-month-old thrift store in Scarborough is likened to the boutiques on Queen Street West.

But a bigger point of pride is the eight-person team that keeps it ship-shape.

Right now, the for-profit social enterprise employs six part-timers and trains two volunteers — all who have a developmental disability or autism.

Karibu — the Swahili word for welcome — opened its doors near Kennedy Road and St. Clair Avenue East in early November. Inside is a stark contrast to the worn-down strip plaza: orange and fuchsia walls, distinctive light fixtures and iridescent pool tiles that checker the walls.

The six part-time employees earn an hourly minimum wage and for the majority, it is their first real job. For the volunteers, it is a chance to get a feel for work in a quiet, small shop, Keels says.

"There's such a need," she says. "People who want to come and volunteer and learn if working is for them, this is a safe place."

"I've worked with people with developmental disabilities who have the skills to do this work but they don't have the opportunity."

A second chance

By nature, a secondhand shop is a second chance. A second chance for clothes outgrown or no longer in style. A second chance for kitchen items used at dinners past. And for Keels, a second chance at pursuing her calling.

"I was a manager in developmental services for more than 25 years and in March 2013, I was given a package and told bye-bye."

Keels says her extensive job search yielded very few leads. But by chance, she found the Ontario Self-Employment Benefit Program and enrolled in August.

"I thought — 'I could try that. But what am I going to do?'"

For the self-professed bargain queen, a thrift store seemed a natural fit, she says.

"Love thrift stores, love a bargain. So I thought I could open a thrift store and hire people with developmental disabilities."

"I wanted to continue working in developmental services. This way I could do it."

The secondhand store thrives on word of mouth. Before Keels even secured a location, her basement was filled to the brim with donations.

Growth and development

Justin Reiter, who is on the autism spectrum, is one of two volunteers at Karibu. The 26-year-old started in late January, working a single one-hour shift per week.

During a typical shift, the workers sort through the latest donations with meticulous care. Clothing is checked for rips and stains and is steamed; toys and board games are examined for missing bits and pieces and the goods deemed in mint condition to sell are neatly stacked on the shelves or hanged on the racks.

Alex Lee, a developmental support worker, uses a hand-over-hand technique to guide Reiter to hang clothing and visual cue cards to show which way the clothing should face.

"For me, he's the star. It's all about him," Lee says. "What can he get out of this at the end of the day? That's my philosophy."

The development of the small crew is tangible, Keels says. On this Saturday afternoon, Reiter has progressed to nearly two hours. 

"I do find the fact that he is enduring more time a good sign, a very good sign," says Tammy Reiter, his mother.

"I thought this was a way to see if he could work in a volunteer capacity to start him off." But eventually, she is hopeful her son gains "confidence in knowing that he can do tasks. Potentially, some work opportunities where he gets paid rather than doing volunteer work."

Reiter learned of Karibu through a community newsletter and says more work experiences like it are desperately needed.

"A day program may have a kitchen where they learn cooking skills but then they're not letting them out into restaurants to work," she says.

'They feel pride'

Keels says her team is eager to come into work.

"They feel pride. They feel a part of this," Keels says. "They're a part of this." 

Her long-term goal is expand to a larger store to hire more people with developmental disabilities and she notes the demand is there. Several community organizations have reached out to Keels with candidates ready to work, she says.

"If we get a bigger facility, I can hire more people and there's lots of people."

But for now, she is ecstatic over the growth of her team.

"How was your day today?" Lee asks Reiter, while hanging clothing.

"Fun!"  

"That says it all," Lee says.

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