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When parents of adults with special needs wanted to organize a group home in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rochel Groner had another idea. Groner is co-director of Friendship Circle, a volunteer based program that advocates on behalf of kids with special needs. With a background in retail, she founded Zabs Place, an upscale thrift boutique and employment training center.

“Our goal is to create a store with a diverse assortment of quality resale merchandise and one-of-a-kind creations, made by local young adults with special needs, all at thrift shop prices,” says Rochel.

Zabs Place is named after Zachary Shporer, a 19-year-old Friendship Circle volunteer who passed away from leukemia in spring 2012. The program is a division of Chabad of Charlotte, North Carolina.

According to the organizers, upon graduating high school, adults with special needs have a difficult time transitioning from school to everyday life. “While most people their age would be going to college or getting a job, it is a more difficult transition for people with special needs,” say Rabbi Bentzion Groner, co-director of the Friendship Circle. It is even more difficult for parents whose children had a routine schedule while in school, but now have no way to occupy their time.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, 69% of typical young adults ages 16-35 were pursuing a college career or held a job. Contrast that with 74.3% of young adults with special needs were living at home and were unemployed or had stopped looking for work. The Groners learned about this issue from many of the parents who they’ve been in touch with through Friendship Circle.

For the Groners it was self-understood that these people are capable of working. “We felt that there is so much these kids have to offer. They have certain talents and abilities, and are capable of doing things that many others may find difficult to do,” Bentzion says.

With that idea, they looked a for a model and found it in Our Thrift Store in Franklin, Tennessee, a non-profit that employs individuals with special needs. The Groners spent a day there to see how it would work and shortly after they arrived back, they began to implement their vision. Dave and Sandy Krikac, the founders of the Tennessee thrift shop donated a pickup truck to Zabs Place.

Turning to the community, the idea was embraced and donations of quality items that people had no use for, but others would, started to pile up. When a space was acquired, volunteers began sprucing it up and their vision became a reality.

Ultimately the goal is to provide steady employment at local businesses for these young adults. The Friendship Circle partnered with Lifespan Services of North Carolina and the Autism Foundation of the Carolinas to develop a job training program. “Participants’ skills and talents will be assessed and matched with a customized training program and a paid employment position in the store,” says Rochel Groner.

Jobs will include such positions as a cashier, display artist, maintenance personnel and sorter. After two years of training, participants will receive a certificate of achievement for the proficiencies they have attained. Volunteers will then turn to local business owners and advocate for them to hire them for a job in their expertise.

Zabs Place is slated to open next week in a 4,400 sq. ft. storefront in downtown Matthews, a suburb of Charlotte. Items will be available to purchase in the store or on Ebay.

“Step over to Zabs Place, at this new store, with select books, cds, accessories, suitcases and everything,” Jonathan Gale an adult with special needs and the shop’s spokesman says, “Start going to Zabs Place to. Hurry up now, we are almost ready.”

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