For teens in high school, it can be difficult to choose a part time job, college and career from the multitude of available options. But for their peers with special needs like autism or Downs syndrome, the difficulty lies in finding those same opportunities.
That’s where ZABS Place at 100 North Trade in Matthews comes in. Opened in November of 2014, the thrift store fills a need in the community for employment training for young adults with special needs.
“We want to help them recognize their potential and realize their potential,” said Manager and Co-Founder Rochel Groner. The choice of a thrift shop was not random. Just as a secondhand store aims to uncover the hidden value of clothes, furniture and other used belongings, so ZABS Place seeks to reveal the unique abilities and potential of its employees.
“Our society focuses so much on their disabilities, but not their abilities,” Groner said. “Some have abilities that go beyond their peers.”
The store operates as a sister organization to Friendship Circle of Charlotte, a non-profit that pairs middle and high school students with special needs peers. While the program was creating community and fostering friendships, it was also revealing another type of need to Groner and others involved.
“What we found was as [the teens] were getting older and going off to college, their special friends didn’t have that opportunity. There was no next step,” Groner said. “As you age, your source of friends changes from school or camp to work. If you don’t work anywhere, you don’t have that. You end up spending a lot of time by yourself.”
Groner and others searched for roughly two and a half years for a business space. They finally settled on an ideal location- a corner building at the intersection of North Trade and East John Streets in Matthews. The name ZABS is an acronym that pays homage to Zecharya Avraham Boruch Shporer, a teen involved with Friendship Circle who was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 18. While he passed away, the thrift store serves a reminder of his loving spirit and motivation. “He had an amazing love for Friendship Circle and kids and teens with special needs,” Groner said. “The name was meant to be.”
Currently there are 10 employees at ZABS. Each follows a personalized employment plan with a checklist of tasks for the day. These can include managing the online Etsy and eBay stores, setting up displays, opening and closing the shop, sorting donations, cleaning, ringing up customers and working on the sales floor. The store is also partnering with a local woman who refinishes furniture to teach the skill to employees.
While some responsibilities may appear minimal, they enforce key areas of learning like motor skills or confidence.
“We’re not here to train the next generation of janitors,” said Employment Coordinator Alison Salerno Dugo. “When you clean, you’re learning to care what things look like and to be careful. Through small tasks like cleaning we can draw out valuable skills. Learning to do valuable skills in different areas helps you do them in general.”
Each employee is paired with a job coach to facilitate hands-on learning. “We keep giving individual attention to our employees to help them grow into themselves,” Dugo said. “We’re also fostering independence. They’re very happy to be working and doing things that make them proud.”
Along with learning skills, the employees experience what it means to be a professional. Calling to notify a manager of a late arrival and dressing appropriately are among the working world expectations that employees learn to follow at ZABS.
“We keep the expectations real, but do so in a warm environment so it’s not overwhelming and they feel they can be successful,” Groner said.
ZABS is sensitive to the needs of its employees; many have never entered a work environment. Once an applicant is identified as a potential good fit, he or she is given a working interview. “We want to see what they can do and how they interact,” Groner said. The working interview encompasses two hours twice a week for two weeks to provide a sampling of different positions within the store.
From there the applicant can progress to a one month unpaid internship. Interns are able to focus on tasks that best match their skills and interests. A reevaluation at the end of the internship phase determines whether a paid position is the appropriate next step. “We know we’re not going to be a fit for everyone,” Groner said. “We ‘re self-sustaining, so we need to be most beneficial to both sides.”
Even if the working interview or internship doesn’t lead to a paid position, applicants are encouraged to add that experience to their resumes and list ZABS Place as a reference, since training and resume building is one of the goals of the store.
Going forward, ZABS Place is working to partner with colleges, universities and Autism Charlotte to offer internships for students.
ZABS Place accepts volunteers and donations, both monetary and material. Donated items should be of consignment quality, with no stains or tears. One of the easiest ways to support the organization’s efforts is to visit and shop. In addition to clothing, the store offers books, furniture, housewares, jewelry, shoes and other miscellaneous items.
“The more customers and the more business we get, the more people we can employ,” Groner said.