Not everyone can be as lucky as the Indiana man who bought a $4.99 vase at his local Goodwill store and discovered on last week’s “Antiques Roadshow” that it would bring between $50,000 and $100,000 at auction.

True, shoppers at the expansive Evanston Goodwill Store and Donation Center, 1916b Dempster St. in Evanston Plaza, are unlikely to uncover treasure as valuable as the 19th-century Arts and Crafts vase.

But surprises of various sorts await those who do business with Evanston Goodwill, a branch of Southeast Wisconsin and Metropolitan Chicago Goodwill Industries, whose website is “amazinggoodwill.com.”    

For starters, those expecting a scruffy “thrift shop” will admire the appearance and scale of the Evanston store. Mike Pierce, Evanston store manager, says Goodwill belies “the stigma about thrift stores. We are clean and organized.” A look around the 10,500-square-foot sales floor proves his point.

Lighting is bright, floors gleam, and a parade of clothing, neatly arranged by type, size, and color, march along uncrowded racks. “Hard lines” – household goods, books, electronics, and collectibles – are neatly stacked on shelves around the store’s periphery. Those with a yen for Christmas in July will note that holiday décor is available year-round.

Shoppers who love “the hunt” will revel in discovering designer clothing, handbags, and vintage items among the more mundane goods – everything at bargain prices. A partnership with Target, says Assistant Store Manager Antonella Demma-Sinks, brings in new, end-of-season merchandise ranging from blenders and video games to clothes.

Like other retailers, Goodwill stores use professional marketing strategies to appeal to customers. Savvy displays and an online fashion blog highlight trends, and perks like a loyalty program and promotions – one-day, half-price sales and discounts by day of the week for students, senior citizens, and military personnel – reward repeat shoppers.

The difference, Ms. Demma-Sinks points out, is that Goodwill stores, which operate as non-profits, rely on donations for their inventory.

Evanston is donating. Generously. “We’ve had a really good first few months,” Mr. Pierce says. Since opening just after Thanksgiving, the Evanston store has averaged 100 donations a day, he says.     

Wary of neighbors’ concerns about traffic jams and after-hours drop-offs, the City worked with Goodwill, Ms. Demma-Sinks says, to establish a “drop-off driving circle” that minimizes congestion. Cars are routed from the parking lot in front to the area behind the store, where employees accept donations. Then a team inside the 6,278-square-foot “back of the house” sorts, prices, and sends donations on their journey.

Goodwill estimates that 60-70% of its donations are resold, most in the local store. That means “people who donate can see things go back into the community,” Ms. Demma-Sinks says. Stores rotate merchandise every four weeks, with unsold items salvaged and “sent to a hub for a second market or to another location,” she says. The Evanston store even accepts computers, selling the components in the store but excluding the hard drive, which they recycle through an arrangement with Dell.

Donations not in salable condition are recycled – baled and sold by weight – and earn revenue “even if [they don’t] get out on the floor,” Mr. Pierce says. With its motto of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” he says, Goodwill “has always been part of the ‘going green movement.’” Goodwill estimates that one of its stores can keep as much as 2 million pounds a year out of a landfill, a money- and environment-saving benefit for a community.

The sale of donated goods is the primary source of funding for the training and employment programs that are the core mission of the not-for-profit Goodwill Industries International Inc. This giant parent organization is made up of more than 165 independent, community-based organizations around the globe. Goodwill Industries says it spends 83% of its $5.59 billion worldwide revenues directly on programs that “provide training, employment, and supportive services for people with disabilities or disadvantages who seek greater independence.”  

“A hand up, not a handout” is the mantra of the organization, which was founded in 1902 by a Methodist minister in Boston. Reverend Edgar J. Helms collected clothes from the wealthy and then trained and hired the unemployed or impoverished to repair them. In 1914 he invited visitors from a Brooklyn, N. Y., workshop mission to observe his operation. The groups so impressed one another that the former Morgan Memorial Cooperative Industries and Stores, Inc., adopted the Brooklyn workshop’s name and the workshop, Rev. Helms’s methods. Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries was born.

The Evanston store is one of nearly 70 stores affiliated with Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin and Metropolitan Chicago, the world’s largest Goodwill chapter. Like all member organizations, the chapter operates as an independent social enterprise, with its own retail stores and job training programs.

The Evanston facility participates in Goodwill programs that offer disadvantaged people or those with disabilities access to computers, job skills, and help with resumés. The Evanston store is partnering with eight local community organizations such as Have Dreams (which serves individuals on the autism spectrum) and Thresholds, Mr. Pierce says, to match job seekers with employers. Once a candidate finds a job, Goodwill can send in a job coach who learns along with the employee and may assist for as long as three months.

At present three individuals with disabilities are employ-ed at the Evanston Goodwill store. One came from the Des Plaines store, as did Mr. Pierce and Ms. Demma-Sinks.
Disabled or not, all Evanston employees start at the same salary, Mr. Pierce says: $10 an hour.

Both Mr. Pierce and Ms. Demma-Sinks express great satisfaction with Goodwill and the career path it offers.

He interned with Goodwill while in college and 12 years ago was hired as a donation attendant; he now manages a store staff of 35 he expects to grow to 40 or 45 by spring. Since starting in 2014, Ms. Demma-Sinks has risen to assistant manager.

Mr. Pierce calls Goodwill “a really rewarding place to work.” Ms. Demma-Sinks says, “I love it. Supporting families and the community, we make a difference daily.” For her, she says, “It’s a job for a living and for the soul.”