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Helping Hands: At Goodwill, donations make busy but valuable work

Groton — On a recent Thursday, an assembly line of sorts was churning in the 9,000-square-foot warehouse.

It's here that the 38,000 items donated annually to the Groton Goodwill Store on Long Hill Road are sorted. With $1.8 million in annual gross sales, it is one of the highest volume stores in southern New England.

In the warehouse, Thaddaeus Mcintosh, one of about 35 employees at the Groton store, was sifting through a large bin piled high with clothing.

"Are there any stains? Any rips? Any holes? Does it smell funny?" Mcintosh said, describing his process as he inspected a navy blue boy's polo shirt.

Once he determines an item is suitable for sale, he puts it into the corresponding bin. Anything not suitable will go to the Goodwill Outlet Store in Hamden, where it's sold by the pound.

He works quickly. Once you've done it long enough, you get a knack for determining what's going to sell, said the 36-year-old Groton resident, who has worked for Goodwill for nine years.

"Our code is we really want to sell the best stuff here," he said.

Goodwill of Southern New England owns and operates 13 secondhand retail stores, including in Groton, and the one outlet store. More than 16 million pounds of goods are donated annually across all of its stores. The organization's annual budget is nearly $25 million, about $20 million of which comes from retail and donated goods.

By and large, "the engine that drives this train is the donated goods program," President H. Richard Borer said.

About 88 cents of every dollar spent at Goodwill supports the organization's programs, such as providing employment services for individuals with disabilities and those experiencing homelessness, and community re-entry services.

Back in the warehouse, Katie Smith, 27, of Groton, is pricing clothing. Some of the lower priced items for sale include sleepwear for 99 cents or a plain T-shirt for $2.99. Some of the more expensive pieces could be a leather or fur coat for $50. Smith said she was trained on identifying different brands and whether something is real fur or leather, for example.

"I like that millennials are becoming more aware of ethically and sustainable clothing brands. A lot of ethical brands are very high-end prices, whereas with us you know it's going to a good cause, you know it's going to help people in the community. It recycles everything around again," Smith said.

Donations get to the sales floor quickly. If somebody donates a nice table and chairs, for example, and there's room for it, it could be on the floor within 10 minutes.

Still, the Groton store receives more donations than it has room for. Stacks of large boxes, filled with donations that still need sorting, line a section of the warehouse. The store goes through between 15 and 20 of the large boxes of clothing a day, said manger Kelly Johnson, and "easily the same amount" of housewares.

Groton sends its surplus to other Goodwill stores in the region that don't receive as many donations. Items also are saved for when donations slow down between January and March.

Surrounded by racks of different patterned and colored linens, Michele Morocho is busy sorting and pricing them, evaluating their quality, the material and whether the item still has tags on it.

"I try to do the best of the best," said Morocho, 49, of Groton, who has worked for Goodwill for 12 years.

Several regular customers know her, and as soon as she brings a rack of linens out onto the sales floor, they're grabbing from it, she said. When she goes on vacation, they ask when she's coming back. "There's nobody that's as good or fast as her," said Johnson, the store manager.

Goodwill has received some memorable donations throughout the years.

An NFL player donated a bunch of his personal clothes, including hundreds of pairs of shoes, to a Goodwill store in Rhode Island, Borer said. He wouldn't disclose the name of the player. An urn that was donated was quickly returned to the donor after it was discovered that the ashes of a family member were inside (luckily that was discovered before it hit the sales floor).

A World War II military uniform recently was donated to a Goodwill store in Connecticut. In the top pocket of the Army field jacket was the soldier's bus ticket home. "You almost wanted to cry," Borer said.

While employees might come across an item they like, they are not allowed to shop at the store they work at per Goodwill policy.

"This is for the community. Not for us," Mcintosh said. "We're getting paid a fair wage to do a job. Why would we want to influence the market and take away from our customers?"

He suspects that most people don't know what goes on behind the scenes to get a donation from the warehouse to the front of the store for sale.

"In their mind, it's just like magic, poof. They donate and somehow it winds up on the sales floor," he said. "They don't understand the assembly line."

j.bergman@theday.com

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