Goodwill’s legacy: A hand up, not a handout
Inspired through his training as a Methodist minister, Edgar J. Helms founded settlement houses in Boston in the late 1800s and went on to be assigned pastor to Morgan Hill Chapel. After seeing a need for food and clothing in the most crime- and poverty-filled neighborhoods of Boston, Helms began collecting unwanted items from the city’s wealthier residents by dropping off burlap sacks and asking people to fill them with any items they could spare. He brought the items to the chapel where he displayed them and invited the needy public to come in and “help themselves.”
One day while Helms was in the chapel, several people got into an argument over who was going to get what. Disgusted, he “announced that the church was being closed, the distribution of goods would end, and everyone must leave.”
Awhile later, a woman came in and said she needed an overcoat to protect against the harsh Northeast winter. He found a coat and handed it to her, but “in broken English she [explained] that she would not accept it as a gift of charity.” Helms hesitantly took the small amount of money she offered, and “the woman smiled proudly as she left with the coat.”
He thought about the difference in the behavior of the woman who insisted on paying something versus the group who argued over free things, and he decided there was real dignity in people being able to pay for items they wanted or needed. That event was a turning point for Goodwill’s mission of helping people achieve successful, independent lives based on their ability to maintain employment and earn a paycheck.
Helms founded Goodwill with a process as simple as collecting items that Bostonians no longer wanted or needed. However, he took it a step further by giving people in need “a chance, not charity.” Helms began providing wages to the impoverished community — including many immigrants — for repairing donated items and in turn, selling the goods to the poor population of Boston.
After its founding in Boston in 1902, the Goodwill concept spread throughout the United States. Reverend John L. Fort saw value in the idea and led the effort to establish Goodwill Industries of Kentucky. In 1923, the basement of Temple Methodist Church was transformed into Goodwill. There, Kentuckians with disabilities or other disadvantages could go to find work and a better way of life.
In 1934, Goodwill Industries of Kentucky joined the National Association of Goodwill Industries, which is now Goodwill Industries International (GII). GII provides assistance to more than 160 autonomous Goodwill agencies in the United States and Canada.
From Paducah to Paintsville, and Louisville to London, Goodwill continues to grow with 64 donation centers and retail stores in 39 counties. Goodwill’s coverage is so widespread that approximately 75 percent of the state’s population lives within 20 miles of a Goodwill store.
Today, Goodwillers around the world continue Edgar J. Helms’ mission and share his vision about the power of work. By providing employment and educational opportunities to people with disabilities or other disadvantages, Goodwill enables people to feel pride in leading successful, productive lives.
Information from Goodwill: For the Love of People, John Fulton Lewis, 1977.