“At Goodwill, we try and meet our clients where they are, and then with training and the tools we have developed, we help them get to where they want to be, and hopefully on their way to a successful career,” said Keith Parker, CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia, at a Goodwill “Atlanta Works” panel discussion at the Commerce Club of Atlanta.

Long-standing legacy charitable organizations have their challenges. Public attention and favoritism are often fickle, and many local and regional charities and nonprofits now also compete for limited resources with their own national chapters.

Missions change, expand and shift, and often competition arises, sometimes within the same space, from newer, smaller and even hyper local entities, with the same good intentions, but little of the long term experience or success in delivering results.

One of those most visible, and in Georgia among the largest in the nonprofit arena, is Goodwill. You most likely have seen and possibly shopped in their thrift stores. They collectively generated nearly $150-million in revenue during 2018. Goodwill received more than 3-million donations during the same period, interacting with 7.5 million customers, donors and clients. Most stores are now staffed and managed by former Goodwill clients. Long known for offering job-training for the developmentally disabled and in some markets sheltered-workshops (where the disabled could be trained and respectfully employed in a safe, albeit somewhat segregated surroundings), providing a modest income, the self-respect which comes from regular employment and the measured independence which follows.

Goodwill of North Georgia (45-county service territory) is led by its CEO, Keith Parker — until recently the man who turned around metro Atlanta’s long-troubled mass transit system, MARTA. At MARTA, Parker stabilized finances (now more than a quarter-billion in operating reserves), improved morale and overall operational efficiency, strengthened a police force which has helped MARTA become one of the nation’s safest transit systems, as well as won the confidence of the state’s business leadership, statehouse and numerous city halls. If this Parker had chosen to stay at MARTA, I would have wagered heavily in favor of the recent unsuccessful transit expansion referendum in Gwinnett County to already be counting that new penny of sales tax revenue this week. Parker is a catalytic leader and change agent. He also walks the factory floor. At MARTA he road those trains to and from work himself, most every weekday.

At Goodwill, Parker understands that that humble worker or disabled adult who walks through their doors may not know where they are heading, or just how they will get there. Fortunately Goodwill does know, and provides the tools, hand up (versus hand-out) and help to identify opportunities to begin that climb up a career ladder and hopefully to a middle-class or better lifestyle and standard of living. Parker believes that wage inequity is a challenge for most urban areas, and at Goodwill, he is trying to do something about that as well. But during Goodwill’s “Atlanta Works” panel discussion, Parker was not suggesting massive taxation or re-distribution of wealth. He was simply suggesting greater investment in human capital and more work force training, in this case privately funded.

Along with Metro Atlanta Chamber CEO Hala Moddelmog, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta CEO Raphael Bostic and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Parker and the panel agreed it is incumbent upon all of the business community to help lift and hire those most challenged and vulnerable, as an employed worker is not only productive and contributing to society, but also no longer a potentially dependent burden, living life on the edge in the safety net or on the streets. This was not only a noble calling to hear, but impressive to note again, that Parker, less than a year into his new gig, is already shifting the landscape, changing the conversation and building community consensus while defining the new mission to lead. The man who re-opened MARTA for business is now going to try and re-open business minds to not only employing, but training and promoting non-traditional employees.

Having a child with Down syndrome, who is blossoming more recently in school thanks to a gifted educator, we are already looking ahead to transitioning to adulthood, higher education and later employment opportunities. I don’t know if Mr. Parker will still be running this show by the time our child graduates high school, but if he is, I have faith and confidence that the developmentally disabled seeking employment opportunities in north Georgia have their future in good hands —and that is more than goodwill.

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