At 20 years old, Tiarra Hammond was living in Las Vegas with her high school sweetheart. She had given birth to their daughter only months before but knew she had to flee the abusive relationship.

Hammond packed a suitcase, borrowed a family member’s car and told her boyfriend she was taking the child to see her doctor in California.

“I already had planned never to come back,” Hammond said. “I was just kind of winging it.”

Hammond’s aunt had put her on the waitlist for a Section 8 housing voucher months before, but when she arrived in California, she was still without housing. So she improvised.

After her baby fell asleep, Hammond’s sister would help her sneak into the house where she was staying. When that system failed, she and her daughter would stay with friends in surrounding cities.

Some nights, they slept in the car.

“I couldn’t [work], there was no way,” Hammond said. “I was just focusing on where to sleep at night.”

Finally, after months in limbo, she was notified that a unit in Long Beach opened up for her through the Section 8 program.

Shortly after the move, Hammond was pregnant again, despite having an IUD. The revelation crushed her.

She recalled thinking her and her children’s lives were going to be “messed up” forever.

“I was stuck,” she said.

When she was seven months pregnant, Hammond walked to a nearby convenience store to get snacks for her and her firstborn, who was now over a year old. She was walking by a small Goodwill office when a woman hailed her and talked her into taking an assessment.

Based on the results of the assessment, Hammond was persuaded to begin the Goodwill’s certified nurse assistant training program once her baby was born.

“I wanted to give my babies a better life,” Hammond said.

The CNA program was completely free at the time, Hammond said. She worked her way through it, during which time staff at local nursing facilities where she had to log hours told her to continue her education to get a higher paying job.

So she did.

Hammond enrolled at Long Beach City College, where she graduated as a registered nurse in 2014. Upon graduation, Hammond was offered a position at St. Mary Medical Center, where she has worked ever since.

Tiarra Hammond, 34, works at a monkeypox vaccination site in Encino. Hammond’s journey to becoming a nurse started with Goodwill’s certified nurse assistant training program. Courtesy of Tiarra Hammond.

A wide range of services

While each is unique, stories like Hammond’s are not uncommon at Goodwill offices across the country. The organization is broken up into 155 territories (13 in California alone), each with its own regional office, executives and board. For over 90 years, Long Beach has been home to the regional office responsible for 22 cities within Southern Los Angeles County, including Carson, Cerritos, Gardena, Torrance and Norwalk, among others.

“We have the smallest geographic area,” Vice President of Workforce Development Ben Espitia said. “However, we have one of the largest Goodwill territories in terms of the dense urban population.”

While many simply think of the thrift stores that pepper communities when they hear the name Goodwill, the organization offers community members so much more than discounted clothes and goods. The nonprofit, for example, has partnered with the California Department of Rehabilitation and the Harbor Regional Center to offer part- and full-time jobs to people with developmental disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism.

Last year, the territory served 932 people, including 256 who entered into job training programs, 126 who completed those programs and 182 whom the organization helped find employment.

Throughout the Southern LA County territory, Goodwill employs 350 people, including 125 in Long Beach. While some are executives and other staff in the administrative offices, most work in the stores and other facilities dealing with the donations.

John Joseph transfers used clothes from one bin to another before they are rolled into the Goodwill outlet Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

And while workforce development is a top priority for Goodwill, the organization aims to meet people where they’re at. If people have challenges that prevent them from being ready for employment, then Goodwill seeks to address those hurdles.

To that end, the Long Beach-based Goodwill has partnered with Foodbank of Southern California to host a mobile food pantry on the fourth Thursday of every month. The pantry is set up at the Goodwill headquarters at 800 W. Pacific Coast Highway.

The organization also offers a two-week life skills and employment preparation program for people experiencing homelessness. The program includes six three-hour classes that cover social interactions, financial literacy, stress/anger/conflict management, ethics, and career development and legal rights.

Upon completion of the program, Goodwill staff assist people in their job search. That assistance can include everything from creating a resume to educating them in specific fields.

Training programs

The Long Beach-based branch is the only Goodwill territory in California to offer a certified nurse assistant training program—the same program Hammond went through.

The organization runs about nine cohort classes per year, each with about 15 students, according to Espitia, who has been with the nonprofit for 22 years. Students gain 115 hours of clinical experience and, by the end of the program, are eligible to take the state nurse assistant certification exam.

The CNA program often has a waitlist, Espitia said.

The program is not limited to people down on their luck, Espitia added. Goodwill has partnered with the Long Beach Unified School District and other schools to assist students interested in the field.

Goodwill offers other programs, including a 40-hour security officer training course, a 10-week computer skills training program and a 10-week parenting class for fathers working to re-enter their child’s life, which includes employment services and case management.

At the conclusion of all its job training programs, Goodwill holds a job fair to connect graduates with employers. Many graduates receive multiple job offers, Espitia said.

A Goodwill employee throws old clothes into a baler, which compresses them into large cubes to be sold cheaply to companies that repurpose the materials. Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“A lot of folks have barriers to employment,” President and CEO Kimberly Hall said. “And our job is to help alleviate those barriers.”

Not all of Goodwill’s services are free, but they are offered at a substantially reduced price. The CNA program, for example, costs Goodwill $3,000 per student, Hall said. The organization, meanwhile, charges $750, which covers a background check, physical, TB test, vaccinations, books, supplies, uniforms and state exam fee.

There are further subsidies for lower-income people through Pacific Gateway, Espitia noted. As the city’s workforce development arm, Pacific Gateway will cover all fees for people who qualify.

Balancing the budget

For Goodwill’s part, the annual budget for the local organization is $25 million, and it all begins with donations, Hall said.

“Donations are extraordinarily important,” Hall said, adding that about 88 cents of every dollar for items sold goes back into the community.

When items are donated, they are first put into one of the organization’s retail stores, of which there are five in Long Beach alone. Items that are not sold after five weeks in stores are moved back to the headquarters to be sold at its “outlet” at a more discounted rate. The outlet is particularly popular with flippers who buy items and then refurbish them, Hall said.

People dig through the bins in the Goodwill outlet Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. If items do not sell inside regular their regular stores after five weeks, the organization brings them to the outlet to sell at a greater discount, which is popular with flippers. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Items that are not scooped up at the outlet are then auctioned off in large lots in the same fashion as the reality show “Container Wars.” Items are placed in large bins, and people bid on them based on what can be seen without sifting through them.

Winners of the auction then rummage through the bins, taking what they want and leaving what they don’t. Items disregarded even by bidders are then packaged with similar items and sold in bulk to companies for recycle and reuse. In the case of clothing, items are put through a baler and sold by the truckload.

“All of this is about not sending anything to the landfill—that’s our goal,” Espitia said. “We have to get the biggest bang for the buck because that’s what the community gave us that donation for.”

The organization received 12.8 million pounds of donations last year. It diverted over 4 million pounds of material from landfills, and collected 711,000 pounds of recycled material and 189,999 pounds of e-waste.

“We have to be stewards of that donation,” he added. “We take all of our donations seriously.”

But the territory’s small geographical size makes it impossible to rely on donations alone, Espitia explained, as the organization can only set up stores within its boundaries. So the team has come up with creative ways to diversify its revenue streams.

One way to generate extra income is to identify donated items that are worth substantial sums, including vintage toys and jewelry. These items are brought to a warehouse at the Long Beach headquarters, cleaned up, photographed and put on, which uses a bidding process like eBay.

The e-commerce operation expanded 40% last year, which necessitated an increase in the number of workstations and a 100% increase in storage capacity. Last year, the top sales were a Super Nintendo with games for $2,751 and a rhinestone brooch for $2,651.

A Goodwill employee takes pictures of jewelry to be posted on the organization’s online auction page Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The more creative revenue stream, though, is the organization’s LINKS sign language and interpreting and document translating service, Hall said. The service, which is not offered by any other Goodwill in the nation, supports 35 languages and American Sign Language.

Hospitals, schools, businesses and more contract Goodwill for interpreting and translation services. The organization then pulls from a pool of trusted providers for the jobs. Last year, Goodwill had over 5,800 assignment requests, with a 93% fill rate.

LINKS generates about $2 million annually, Espitia said.

The organization also contracts for janitorial services, Hall said. For example, Goodwill has a contract with the city of Carson to clean the city’s bus stops. Janitorial services make the organization money while also providing jobs, she added.

Long Beach, and Los Angeles County as a whole, is certainly a high-needs region, Hall said. In Long Beach alone, homelessness has increased 62% since early 2020, according to city data. While unemployment has dropped to pre-pandemic levels, many people remain out of work.

While there will always be more people to help, the team at Goodwill is dedicated to assisting as many as possible. Hall said staff is working to build four career centers throughout the territory to take services directly to the people rather than them having to travel to Long Beach. The organization also is working to expand existing training programs and introduce new ones.

“We need more staffing and with more staffing comes more costs,” Espitia said. “So we have to find a way to create more opportunities to expand our programs.”

It’s all to transform lives

For Hall, who assumed the position of president and CEO of the Long Beach-based territory in December after working within the Goodwill system for 12 years, the mission is to change people’s lives.

“I’ve always had a passion to help people connect to jobs and careers,” said Hall, who worked as a corporate recruiter before starting at Goodwill.

“The nonprofit space is where my passion lies,” she said. “Every single day we get an opportunity to see our work on display in individuals whose lives have been transformed by our work.”

All of Goodwill’s efforts are worth it for the sake of people like Hammond.

Now 34, Hammond has been married for eight years, has four kids and still lives in Long Beach. She worked through the pandemic at St. Mary, where she continues her employment today.

In 2016, Hammond was named the Goodwill Industries International Kenneth Shaw Graduate of the Year. She is an advocate for Goodwill and has traveled across the country to share her story on behalf of the organization that she said she owes her current life to.

Most people never make it out of circumstances like hers, Hammond said, and she doesn’t know where she would be if not for Goodwill.

“I think I would still be lost somewhere,” she said. “I was in this downward spiral, my life was out of control, and I didn’t know how to save it. It’s so easy to stay there.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.