Carol Robinson had just put the necklaces on display when two customers walked in.
Their friend — the mother of a bride-to-be who'd been jilted a day before she was to walk down the altar — needed a pick-me-up.
Drawn to the words engraved on the keys hanging from silver and gold chains, the women reached for one that read "strength."
"[She] could sure use this," Robinson recalled them saying.
Such comments are frequent, according to the owner of Laguna Beach-based Jasmine Street General Store, whether people come in specifically looking for The Giving Keys or stumble across them.
The 2-month-old shop, half a block from Heisler Park, houses a little bit of everything — toys, cards, umbrellas and beach chairs. The necklaces are The Giving Keys' only products sold there.
Robinson has a soft spot for the old, repurposed keys. A plaque informs visitors about the Los Angeles-based company that employs people transitioning out of homelessness. They are the ones who stamp the keys with words including "faith," "dream," "love" and "fearless."
Wearers are encouraged to not only give their message-bearing item to someone who they believe needs the encouragement, but also to send the team at The Giving Keys their pay-it-forward stories.
It's a point of pride for Robinson that her mom-and-pop store sells several goods made by companies that donate portions of their proceeds to charity. What sets the concept of the keys apart, she finds, is that the making of the items gives people work.
"I like giving new life to something that's old," she remarked. "And I think the idea of it is really great, especially giving jobs to people that really need a break."
'Ugly, broke & hungry'
Singer-songwriter Caitlin Crosby, founder of The Giving Keys, was in New York in 2008 when inspiration struck. She discovered a used hotel room key and liked it so much that she began wearing it around her neck. Soon after, she was at a locksmith shop, where she came across some discarded keys and discovered that words could be etched on them.
After getting a few made, Crosby began giving them to friends as gifts. Judging by their response, she quickly realized that she was on to something and began selling them while on tour.
"They would sell out more than her CDs," said Brit Moore, the organization's managing director. "So Caitlin thought to herself, 'Maybe I should focus on this a little bit more.'"
A few months into setting up an online store, Crosby knew that she wanted the proceeds to go to charity, but she was yet to find a cause that was specific to The Giving Keys.
One evening, she walked onto Hollywood Boulevard after attending an event for Invisible Children — an organization that aims to bring awareness to the activities of the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa — and noticed a homeless couple, Rob and Cera, seated on a sidewalk under an umbrella. They were clutching a sign that said, "Ugly, broke & hungry." Crosby canceled her plans for the night and took them to dinner.
It was while chatting with them that she complimented Cera on her necklace, which it turned out was handmade. And that's when Crosby knew how the keys were going to give back to society.
The next day, Rob and Cera — after receiving all the necessary supplies — began engraving keys on streets and alleys where they camped. Earning one dollar per item, they were able to make enough money to move first into a hotel and then an apartment. Rob got his high school equivalency certificate and then moved to Seattle for college; Cera found a job at the San Diego Zoo.
The Keys open doors
As the business grew, Crosby teamed up with the United Way and People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), through which she found people who were interested in stamping keys. In early 2013, The Giving Keys changed gears and decided to partner with Chrysalis, a workforce development agency for homeless and low-income individuals that offers job readiness training, job placement, housing assistance and even interview clothes.
"It was great for the engravers to have an income, but we wanted to set them up for long-term success and retention in the workforce," Moore remarked. "We wanted to give them a job so they would be in the office with us."
This marked a turning point in the structure of The Giving Keys, where rings, bracelets and iPhone cases are also sold. Moore said the dynamic changed as the staff spent their days involved in the lives of their engravers.
"There's a lot that happens by osmosis, and we really work hard to create a healing, family-type environment," she said. "You come in and are surrounded by people who support you not only with employment but also by being your friend and caring for your life beyond the office."
While everyone who works for The Giving Keys wears one — or several — keys, Crosby, who worked as a barista at Fred Segal, was able to enlist the clothing retailer as the company's first vendor. Now, the keys are sold at more than 300 stores across the United States, with others in Canada, Italy, Dubai and Japan.
'Courage' for an undergrad
Kitson at Fashion Island is one such venue.
Courtney Saavedra, the company's director of sales and marketing, said buyers first encountered the keys in fall 2012 and have since played a critical role in Kitson's decision to carry the jewelry in San Diego, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Hollywood and elsewhere. The flagship store, slated to open in Las Vegas in mid-March, will also sell the line.
"The issue of homelessness and unemployment in our community is one that deeply touches all of us," she said. "And [it's] one of the few causes with effects visible to all of us on a daily basis."
Saavedra believes that simple thoughts like "let go" and "grace" catch customers' attention, as does the fact that celebrities such as Ryan Gosling, Zac Effron and Harry Styles are pictured donning the keys.
"The keys appeal to everyone, look great worn in multiples and have personal meaning while serving to help others," she remarked. "All of these factors contribute to strong sales."
For Mannix Heath, 40, of Los Angeles, the keys represent hope. As one of four Chrysalis members employed by The Giving Keys, he looks forward to going to work every morning because he is greeted by welcoming colleagues who only require that he be himself.
The job has enabled him to become financially independent and stable for his 18-year-old son, a new student at Los Angeles City College, to whom he gave a key that says "courage."
"I enjoy working at The Giving Keys because I can express myself," he reflected. "It's given me something to look forward to."
The Giving Keys
Founder: Caitlin Crosby
Specialty: Repurposed keys
Home base: Los Angeles