Jessica Perez was still new to Maryland three years ago when her marriage collapsed, leaving her and her two-year-old daughter without financial support.
She applied for public assistance but was denied because her estranged husband earned too much money. With a toddler in tow, she struggled to land even low-paying jobs.
Then she spotted a flier about a work-apprenticeship program at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, the charitable institution celebrating its 100th anniversary this month.
One apprenticeship training program, countless classes and several months of physical work later, she’s a licensed roofer earning $22 an hour, a union member with full benefits, and a woman on the verge of entering the foreman ranks in a male-dominated field.
“I always thought of Goodwill as just the [secondhand] stores, so I didn’t have a clue about all these services it provides,” Perez, 27, said in a phone interview from the ninth-floor roof of Wills Wharf, a new hotel and office building in Harbor Point, where she’s working. “I’m glad I found out. It changed everything.”
Local officials call Perez a model of how Goodwill of the Chesapeake has changed over its century of existence even as its core mission has remained steady ― one reason she’ll be a featured speaker at its centennial gala Saturday at the Montgomery Center in Baltimore.
The roofers’ apprenticeship program is one of a growing number of initiatives the Maryland-based nonprofit offers to those experiencing barriers to employment, all in service of offering “not charity, but a chance,” in the words of the international organization’s motto.
“Because we always want to deliver the best services we can for our clients and for employers, we start new programs and develop new partnerships every year," said Lisa Rusyniak, the organization’s president and CEO. “We’ve shown over time that we expand and evolve to meet the needs of the community, and we plan on being here and doing the same thing a hundred years from now."
The centennial, Rusyniak said, offers an excellent opportunity for gaining a perspective on the purpose and growth of Goodwill of the Chesapeake, which like all local Goodwills operates independently from, if under the umbrella of, its parent organization, Goodwill International Industries.
The movement was founded in Boston in 1902, Goodwill historians say, when a Methodist minister, the Rev. Edgar J. Helms, created an innovative new service model for the poor as part of his ministry.
Volunteers collected used goods and clothing in affluent parts of town, and the ministry paid indigent individuals to mend them and sell them to the poor at nominal prices. Within a decade, it was spreading nationwide.
The Baltimore operation ― the nation’s seventh ― was born when the pastor of the old Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church in Fells Point, the Rev. John S. German, and other civic leaders incorporated Baltimore Goodwill Industries in February 1919 and opened it Oct. 3.
They hired two locals to stencil and fold the burlap sacks that would be used to collect household goods. The proceeds paid the workers.
The first annual budget was $2,625.
According to Goodwill archives and press accounts, the operation grew rapidly as the Girl and Boy Scouts led donation drives and Goodwill employees set up collection boxes, staffed mobile donation centers, and opened stores.
By 1931, the nonprofit ― then operating out of a building on East Pratt Street ― was providing a weekly payroll of $1,000 and more than 135,000 hours of work per year to “old, blind, deaf or crippled” individuals, according to an article in the Baltimore Sun headlined “Making Jobs Out of Junk.”
It diversified with the decades.
Baltimore Goodwill began offering vocational training programs in 1948. Seven years later, it became one of the first non-public agencies in Maryland certified to do so. It began providing janitorial services to local businesses and agencies in the early 1960s.
According to its longest-tenured board member, operations were still modest compared to today’s when he signed on in the 1980s.
The focus at Baltimore Goodwill then was on employing about 100 severely disabled adults in “sheltered workshops" where they could do menial work such as assembling windshield wiper parts or rewiring lamps, Robert Kimmons said.
About 15 years ago, though, the board decided to multiply its outreach efforts to serve “many more people," Kimmons recalled, “not just those with disabilities, but people who are underprivileged in many other ways. It could be people just coming off welfare, or who are ex-offenders, who lack job training or who have fallen on hard times in some other way.”
Under then-president Marge Thomas, the group moved its headquarters from Arbutus, where it relocated in the 1970s, to its current, more easily accessible Redwood Street site in downtown Baltimore. The change helped spark an explosion in growth.
A chapter that was placing 500 people a year into jobs in 2000 now does the same for 2,500. It employs more than 750 people, runs 31 stores and 11 career-development sites and serves most of Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
Its budget, about $54 million a year, is more than 20,000 times what German started with in 1919. And officials say partnerships with entities ranging from the Maryland Food Bank and the Social Services Administration to CVS, Amazon, Microsoft and the Baltimore-D.C. Building Trades Unions help provide training and other services for about 60,000 people a year.
More than 70 percent of its income derives from retailing the 20 million pounds of donated goods it receives annually, Rusyniak said, but the organization continues to find new revenue streams, including ShopGoodwill.com, an Internet auction site.
Perez stumbled on the organization while trying to apply for food stamps in 2016.
The flyer she saw, written in Spanish, spoke of a new apprenticeship program through Roofers Local 30. It urged applicants to contact Bueno Alianza, a Goodwill of the Chesapeake initiative that connects Latinos who are legally qualified to work in the United States and others who might be struggling with English with vocational training opportunities.
Perez, a U.S. citizen, needed no language help, but she tested into the roofers program. She became one of only two apprentices from a class of 20 to survive the training and later became the first female roofer hired by Frederick-based Kalkreuth Roofing and Sheet Metal in more than a quarter-century.
She said she’s not sure what she’ll say at Saturday’s gala, where Ned Helms, the grandson of founder Edgar Helms, also will make an appearance, but she knows it will center on how Goodwill of the Chesapeake served up unexpected opportunities that changed things for her and her daughter Ada, now 4.
“She sees how hard I work for her every day, and she’s going to look back and remember that,” Perez said. “It feels good to be standing for myself and for us."