Adam Interviews local Goodwill CEO

Adam Interviews

Jennifer Lake is trying to save hundreds of jobs and vital services

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Jennifer Lake hasn’t been CEO of Goodwill of the Finger Lakes for very long, but she has without question been dealt the agency’s biggest challenge to date: a pandemic that threatens to wipe out its funding and, in turn, its services.

With Goodwill’s clothing stores still closed, the not-for-profit is left without its greatest source of funding.

Lake talked about where things stand with Adam Chodak.

Adam Chodak: 700 people under the Goodwill of the Finger Lakes umbrella. What happened in March when this stated to unravel?

Jennifer Lake: We were faced with some of those tough leadership challenges. What to do when public health is advising businesses to be careful and be cautious while we also realize that a lot of our employees depend on their paycheck each week so one of the first decision we made as a leadership team is to voluntarily close our clothes and donation centers before it was necessary and we did that because we can’t support our community if we don’t support our own employees and if we aren’t sure that safety is the utmost priority. We wanted to pay our employees during the duration. It was important to us that we do that even though our cash registers are closed and we depend on our retails stores for a bulk of our operations along with manufacturing operations.

AC: How financially are you making that happen?

JL: We of course like other businesses did avail ourselves of the Paycheck Protection Program. While we’re over 500, we qualified because of our manufacturing operation for over a hundred years we’ve been in that community so it was 750 employee limit thankfully so that will help but by the end of June we’ll be facing a million to a million and a half deficit partially because of our decision to pay our employees the entire time so from March 16 all the way through June we’ll pay our employees so the PPP only covers from mid-April forward so we’re hoping our shoppers will come back, we’ve implemented again, the experience will be re-imagined, we’ll still be able to do a Goodwill treasure hunt, but doing it in a way that’s safe for our employees and our customers.

AC: So when will stores open?

JL: So our stores aren’t going to open until about May 30. We’ll continue to watch the state guidelines, our donated good retail is considered in that Phase 2 so provided that our community continues to wear masks and continues to practice good social distancing we’re very hopeful that that part of our operation can resume because it’s really integral. We’ve also decided to double down on our 211 service. If you’re not familiar it operates 24-7 for human service calls and we’ve been experiencing triple the call volume. Since March 16, we’ve answered over 20,000 phone calls. In that same time frame last year we had just over 6,000 so it’s been a tremendous increase and we’re very proud that our average answer time is within 3 minutes so if you’ve heard other stories about other phone numbers in the state a 3-minute answer time is really good and it’s that crucial encouraging presence helping someone who doesn’t know how to feed their family who’s worried about the fact that they can’t pay their rent or their utilities along with just mental health questions around fear and anxiety.

AC: When we start to reopen what type of services will be available for people from Goodwill?

JL: So from Goodwill, we’ll be changing our ABVI in-person services because our populations are so at risk, we had really doubled down on efforts to do vision wellness so we do early vision screenings for preschools and day cares along with community screenings for the un- or under-insured and a lot of that is really being re-imagined right now, what are those services going to be? We have a great collaboration with the Flaum Eye Institute so we’ll have to wait and see what that will look like in a safe way because a lot of the equipment we use to do those screenings requires a closer proximity than the physical distancing will allow going forward. Obviously we won’t necessarily be going into the assisted living or long-term care facilities because it’s not safe so that part of our mission will be re-imagined. 211 Lifeline will also likely grow and increase. While right now we’re dealing with the immediate needs, food insufficiency, housing and income are the biggest increase year over year where we’re seeing people in the community calling, that will extend and elongate the longer we’re in the recovery so right now it’s the immediate need, but the longer this persists those calls will get more complex.

AC: Do you find that people are surprised by all of the services that Goodwill provides?

JL: Absolutely, Goodwill is more than a store and I think it’s one of the best kept secrets in Rochester and that’s one of my personal passions is to make sure people understand that when you shop and donate to Goodwill, you’re supporting 211/Life Line, you’re supporting ABVI’s programs for people who are blind or visually impaired you’re really supporting over a hundred other not-for-profit organizations that we partner with through our good neighbor program and good neighbor is a way that other organizations so Catholic Families, Veterans Outreach Center are just a few, they can actually have gift cards from us where we give them the items they need for their participants so Volunteers of America we recently partnered with, they have a great homeless reentry program and graduates of their program will now receive a gift from Goodwill, sheets, towels, plates, utensils, things you need when you haven’t had a home for a while and you’re having that new reentry so it’s really hard to explain all the good we do in the community but we’re going to try to be better at getting that message out.

AC: Anything else that I might have missed?

JL: I think it’s really helping the community to understand that our organization will continue to be strong and really thrive because we’re all in this together. That said, we really would appreciate the community’s support by donating your items now that you’re able to donate at our donation centers in a contactless way that’s safe for our donors, safe for our employees and hopefully everyone will show up to shop at our retail stores and if you’re able, I know there’s a lot of organizations in need right now, we would also like to see a financial contribution at our website

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