Dave and Sandy Krikac, like many parents, hoped that their daughter would be able to grow up, find a job, become independent, and live a quality life.
However, when Sara - who has autism - finished a Transition program aimed at helping young adults with disabilities prepare for getting a job, her parents realized that her job prospects were slim to none.
"The unemployment rate in Williamson County, which is our county, is about 50% for special needs adults." Dave recalls, "At the time there were about 900 unemployed special needs adults in Williamson County."
After Dave himself was laid off, he realized that he had an opportunity to help Sara and those like her who were perfectly able to work but could not find employment because of their disability. After prayer and deliberation, Dave started the GEAR foundation with the mission of providing employment to adults with disabilities; Our Thrift Store was the first of its projects.
The business model is simple: community members donate clothes, furniture, computers - things that are still in good condition but that they no longer use. Those donations are then sold at a huge discount to the buyer. What sets Our Thrift Store apart is that all the money raised is funneled into creating as many jobs as possible for people with disabilities within the store. Their tagline, Stuff=Jobs, is a reminder that this is not a store for making money - it is about making people happy and independent.
The jobs created are far from just menial tasks, performed in a sequestered environment. Those with disabilities work right alongside everyone else in the store, talking with each other about their lives, their weekends, their dreams and ambitions. Those with disabilities interact directly with the public, helping customers and thanking donors at the door for their donation and support of Our Thrift Store and its mission. This social interaction helps those who have a different time interacting with others learn how to behave in a work environment, and helps prepare them for independence.
"It's really amazing that we try to help each other as a team, and you don't always have to do everything just by yourself, but we do everything as a team" says Joanne Cotton, an employee of Our Thrift Store. "Everybody has different jobs that they're doing, but as a team."
From day one, the community has been behind Dave and his vision; indeed, community involvement has been a major component of Our Thrift Store's success. Members of Dave and Sandy's church used their bible study time to help clean, paint, and organize the store to prepare for opening day. On the opening day itself, Sonic provided free food while eight members of the Tennessee Titans signed autographs for two hours.
"I didn't know anything much about retail. I had an idea, but I didn't even have cash registers that day, I had calculators and little writing pads. I was doing the best that I understood. Well, now we've got 14,000 sqft we've expanded twice the size. 8 years later, we have 22 young adults with disabilities and about 34 employees," Dave explains.
The continued success of Our Thrift Store has allowed Dave to expand the business, and not only in size. Two years ago, they started an online branch of the store on eBay, helping to sell their more off-beat items while creating jobs for wheelchair users, who might have had difficulty working some of the jobs in the store but could easily photograph, list, package, and ship merchandise.
Dave hopes that Our Thrift Store and the GEAR foundation will keep expanding, creating even more jobs for the less easily employable and raising awareness about what valuable members of society those with disabilities are.