The sunlight was as cold and barren as the naked trees in Franklin Square, just a few blocks from the White House. It seemed to offer no respite from the chilly breeze that blew through the park. John and Walter stood with cups of hot chili in their hands and their collars turned up to keep their necks warm.
We engaged in small talk for a while. Both men answered questions and offered opinions between bites of chili and a never-ceasing stream of thank-yous. Walter talked excitedly about starting a new job after more than two years of searching.
John fell silent as Walter spoke. He cast his eyes into his cup of chili like he was looking for a bit of cracker floating in it. After a few minutes, John began to share his struggle to find a job. As the frustration in his voice grew, he stopped eating the chili and spread his arms in a gesture of desperation.
“No matter where I go, no matter where I apply, I can’t get a job! I’ve filled in over 200 applications and still nothing,” he lamented. “Because I have a prison record, I can’t even get a job at McDonalds! I served my time. I paid my debt to society. Why can’t I get a break?”
That conversation took place in 1999 during a strong economy. Jobs were plentiful, but not for John. His words have haunted me ever since.
How many people languish in poverty because, no matter how hard they try, they can’t get a job? Prison record, lack of education, lack of job skills, mental illness and other obstacles create dim prospects for tens of thousands of poor people. Many have marketable skills and talents, but a job is still out of reach for them.
That conversation spurred me to look for a way that someone in John’s shoes can learn how to earn an income regardless of their background or mental state.
Recently, I discovered eBay Giving Works, the nonprofit arm of the giant online auction. I also began researching Etsy, a marketing system for arts and crafts, the Amazon Marketplace, Fulfillment by Amazon, and other Internet-based commerce platforms. I believe these methods can provide additional support for TOP and help homeless and other poor people we serve step up the ladder to a better life.
We have named this effort TOPwerx. We are launching it right now. In the first stage, our staff will learn the techniques of selling online. Our initial approach will be sort of an online thrift store, except we won’t sell everything through one site. We’ll use whatever platform best suits a product.
As we learn the ins-and-outs of online commerce, we will develop a training program. Once a core curriculum is in place, we plan to help 2 – 3 clients through a pilot program. During this stage we will fine tune the system and make careful notes on outcomes. We plan to bring in youth volunteers wherever we can during the process, especially when we teach computer skills. Finally, we will seek grants to expand so we can serve more people and increase support for TOP at the same time.
How You Can Help
We are looking for donated items to sell. Games, toys, tools, horse supplies, electronics, textbooks, reference books, shoes, clothing and anything else you can imagine selling on eBay. We can arrange pickup in Northern Virginia, the Northern Shenandoah Valley and DC. If you are somewhere else in the region contact us. Our goal is to find a repository for donated items in every city where we work.
We are also looking for people who have experience selling on eBay, Half.com, Etsy.com, Amazon Marketplace or Fulfillment by Amazon to help shorten the learning curve for us.
Please pray that TOPwerx will become an opportunity for those who have little hope in the job market and that it will help TOP expand its ministry with “the least of these.”
God’s grace to you,
Steve Jennings, Executive Director