In the market for a designer wedding dress? A piano? Travel books, children’s toys, vintage furniture?
They are all in stock at ZABS Place, an upscale resale boutique in Charlotte, North Carolina. Open since November of 2014, the store employs 14 adults with special needs. Their unique model, formed in conjunction with the Friendship Circle, has been embraced by the local Jewish community. And now it has been recognized on a national scale: ZABS Place was chosen as one of nine innovators by UpStart, the leading launch pad for major organizations in the Jewish world.
The UpStart Accelerator, based in San Francisco, provides select Jewish organizations with personalized coaching sessions, networking opportunities, and funding for three years. Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, UpStart has seen most of its pet projects become household names. The competition this year was the toughest yet, with 66 organizations from around the world applying for the coveted spots. ZABS made the cut.
“ZABS is really looking at their population,” explains UpStart’s director of marketing, Jaime Rapaport Barry. “They understand the pains and needs of people with special needs and they designed their structure around those requirements.
“We like to see organizations empathize with their potential participants. Instead of saying this is what a Jewish institution looks like, the community is learning more and more how important it is to look at the needs of the people they are trying to attract, before shaping their programs.”
Considering the needs of their employees is where ZABS really shines. The store began as a response to young adults with special needs who were aging out of established programming and didn’t have any attractive opportunities for employment. Before its inception, this population often found themselves in group homes as their next, and final, address.
Rochel Groner, co-director of Friendship Circle, wanted something more. When she founded ZABS Place, she envisioned a store where employees could learn life and work skills while providing a valuable service to the community. The trendy store, which sells high-quality secondhand items, has become something of a destination shop in Charlotte. ”We are teaching the community to interface with people with special needs as they would with anyone else.”
When a potential employee comes for an interview, Groner asks, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” And then she listens. Too often, the store’s manager says, “people with special needs are told what to do without any concern for their personal needs or interests. We help them get as close as they can to their goals.”
One employee dreams of working at Walmart’s craft center. Groner has her restock craft fabrics at ZABS and teaches her the skills she will need to be successful at a different store. The cashier, who rings up customers on an Ipad-based system, needs to know the current discounts, how to key in the correct price, and how to produce change. Along with concrete retail skills, ZABS teaches its employees how to get along with managers and colleagues in any work environment. Groner not only prepares her employees well for future endeavors, she discovers their innate talents so that she can match them up seamlessly.
“I wanted to work at ZABS Place so I could be independent,” shares 21-year old Jonathan Gale. “My job is to send out shipments from eBay and Etsy, and keep the book section organized and put out new books when the shelf is empty. I also sell textbooks online.”
His favorite part of the work day? “I like to check the mail to see if we get checks for the books that I sold online. I want to work at ZABS Place for a long time.”
Groner looks forward to growing ZABS Place so that Gale can continue here and so the dozens of other young adults on the waiting list can find their niche as well. UpStart’s beneficence, she anticipates, will allow her to learn from other growing organizations and network with business management professionals. She would also love to see the boutique replicated in other Jewish communities.
The store, located at a busy intersection in suburban North Carolina, is clearly much more than the merchandise its employees carefully sort and hang and sell. ZABS Place is all about finding the value in each of its workers, and then shining and cultivating it.
“We looked for organizations that contribute to the vitality of Jewish life,” Upstart’s director, Rapaport Barry says. “And ZABS is a really innovative model, with extremely passionate leaders.”