This week, local Goodwill agencies across North America are celebrating Goodwill Industries Week—an annual celebration of the continuing impact that Goodwill founder Dr. Edgar Helms’ vision has in communities. The celebration gives me pause to reflect upon the timelessness of Helm’s belief in “the power and dignity of work.”
I was recently down in Goodwill’s historical archives to learn more about how the first Goodwill established “Fresh Air” camps in the Berkshires in 1906. The yellowed pages written by the pioneers of Goodwill were littered with firsthand accounts of the conditions in South Boston’s industrial slums.
- Substandard sanitation
- Poor nutrition
- Harsh working conditions, including loose child labor laws
- High unemployment
- Lack of education
- Pervasive substance abuse
- High crime rates
Soon after the first Goodwill store was established in 1902 to convert donated household items and clothing into revenues to pay wages to Goodwill employees, Goodwill recognized that simply providing jobs that pay wages was not enough. More needed to be done to help the people Goodwill employed and served to escape poverty.
The Fresh Air camps were a response to the problem. They provided “a taste of fresh air and sunlight” to men, women, youth and infants who needed to get away from Boston’s industrial slums. Campers were also given opportunities to learn job skills and participate in a summer school program. In addition, Goodwill provided them with opportunities to learn how to garden, a skill many used back in South Boston to put fresh vegetables on their families’ plates.
Since the 1900s, many rules and regulations have been implemented to address social problems, and policymakers could certainly do more to ensure that people have access to quality and affordable education, job training, food and nutrition, transportation, housing, etc.
Yet the lesson Goodwill’s pioneers recently taught me is this: work is empowered when workers are treated holistically and as people first. In the process, communities can be strengthened and revitalized.
That’s the power of work!