How this Vancouver Downtown Eastside charity helps people give unemployment the boot

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Sometimes, all it takes is new Working Gear to change someone’s life.

That’s the motto of a non-profit charitable organization on the Downtown Eastside that’s helping low-income and/or unemployed men (and some women) get back into the workforce by providing them with appropriate clothing, gear and footwear at no cost.

Vancouver Is Awesome visited Working Gear recently to see how they are making a difference to the community.

The outside of Working Gear. Photo: Google

Volunteers Joan Glover and her daughter Olivia, 16, were standing out front with suits in their arms when we arrived.

The organization is based in a pretty nondescript location on Powell Street; passers-by probably wouldn’t know it was there, unless they stopped to read a black and yellow sign on a glass door.

It’s next door to the Powell Street Getaway Resource Centre and up the road from Oppenheimer Park.

The organization has been helping men in the community for 12 years now, and yet, not many people know it exists.

Glover said she came across the not-profit on Volunteer BC, while searching for a charity that she and her daughter could help out at once a week.

“I think what appealed to me was that when we come down here; we’re working directly with the people that it’s impacting. We’re at the frontlines, and for me that was really important,” she said.

Working Gear operations manger Sarah Beley helps client Michael Olabode pick out a new tie. Photo: Elisia Seeber

For two hours, once a week, every week for the past three months they have helped men who have been referred to the charity to find the right suit, work boots or industrial site gear that they need to either start a new job, continue their current role, or to go to an interview.

“I think people have some stereotypes in their mind about people down here, but you know what, these are just people who have had a tough time and want to improve things for themselves,” Glover said.

“Employment and education really can be the things people can grab on to, to improve their lives and become independent.

“Not having the right clothing can be a real barrier for people to achieve that.”

Stepping inside, it’s a fairly simple set up with what you’d expect: rooms with walls of shirts and suits, another with high-visibility construction wear and an area for shoes.

While giving a tour, Sarah Beley, Working Gear operations manager, said up to 36 people of all walks of life showed up on any given week in need of work-wear.

The organization accepts referrals from 53 agencies in B.C., such as YMCA, Union Gospel Mission, Squamish Nation, MOSAIC, Immigrant Services of B.C. and Work BC.

Whoever has an appointment can have a personal shopping experience, without the expensive price tag.

“We are helping 1000 individuals a year with only volunteers,” Beley said. “We’ve just increased to 13 operation days a month, so that number could be even higher.

“I think the more [volunteers] we have, the bigger impact we can have.”

Just moments after we walked inside to look around, a man holding a rather heavy-looking sports bag came in and said, “I have a donation.”

He had brought in thousands of dollars worth of Keen Utility work boots. To a place like Working Gear, which relies on fundraising, donations and partnerships, he was a knight in shinning armour.

Andrew Hewat, province sales rep for Keen Utility, donated work boots to the charity. Photo: Elisia Seeber

Beley looked over and her eyes lit up. When asked if this was a normal occurrence, she said, “That’s the first time that’s happened in four years!”

Work boots can be expensive and hard to come by; the charity has to host fundraisers to ensure there’s a readily available supply.

“Everyone wants something that’s new and just for them, especially something as personal as your work boots,” Beley explained.

Andrew Hewat, province sales rep for Keen Utility, told V.I.A he’d been looking for an organization like Working Gear for a long time.

It was just good timing that we happened to be on site to capture the moment he walked in.

Andrew Hewat, province sales rep for Keen Utility, told V.I.A he’d been looking for an organization like Working Gear for a long time. Photo: Elisia Seeber

“Usually we give the boots to the Salvation Army or a thrift shop but there’s no guarantee where they’re going, whereas at this place it goes right to the source,” Hewat said.

“It’s better.”

He said the boots donated either had a slight cosmetic issue or were near-brand-new try on samples from stores.

“These [boots] by no means should be thrown out; there is a tonne of value for lots of people who need them,” Hewat said.

That value was seen almost instantly.

As we spoke, a man searched through the boots looking for a perfect fit. The man, who didn’t want to be named, told us his old boots went missing when he left a shelter he was staying at to help a friend.

Without them, he wouldn’t be able attend his job as a crane operator. He said he had come to find work boots at the charity once in the past, but they didn’t have what he needed.

“This guy just showed up with all these brand new boots, it’s awesome,” he smiled.

After choosing his pair, he expressed much gratitude.

“They are perfect, they were on my bucket list,” he said.

He said finding the boots was just one less thing he had to worry about while he was putting all the “pieces of his life back together.”

‘We exist’

The centre has recently been put in the spotlight after being chosen for a generous donation of $350,000 worth of interview ready clothing, including suits, sport coats, dress shirts, ties and more from New Brunswick-based menswear store owner, Andrew Libby.

In May, Libby announced nationally that he was looking for a charity to donate to after purchasing the Distinct Designers store. After receiving numerous applications, he decided on Working Gear.

The donation means the charity will be able to continue giving hundreds of Vancouver men the opportunity to look and feel their best at their next interview or job placement, regardless of their circumstances.

Brent Pollington, a Working Gear board member, said everyone “was blown away” by the donation, but more importantly it was helping to raise awareness about what they do.

“I think the goal for us through this whole endeavour is to help us get greater community engagement and have people, who don’t even know we exist, see that we’re a resource,” he said.

“When you take a step right outside our door and see the challenges of the Downtown Eastside … you see how much [Working Gear] can drastically impact the local community.”

Brent Pollington, a Working Gear board member, said everyone “was blown away” by the suit donation. Photo: Elisia Seeber

Pollington, who has been on the board for two years now, said the organization offered more than just work clothes for men down on their luck.

“They come in here and they get treated with such respect that they don’t often get in a lot of their interactions, which I think totally helps them take those steps in the right direction,” he said.

Pollington said the organization was incredibly grateful for partnerships they had already made with manufacturers and businesses, including Big K Hi-Vis and Indochino, but they were always looking for more help.

“We absolutely struggle to provide people with a lot of the stuff they actually need like boots and construction site gear,” Pollington said.

“We need these partnerships so we never have to turn people away.”

‘Suited up’

In another room, volunteer Joan Glover was helping client Michael Olabode choose a suit for his new job in the hotel industry.

“They are really doing a great job,” Olabode said, while looking at some new pants.

“I’m a new immigrant in Canada. Just last night I got a job and the job demands that I put on a black suit … so that is why I’m here.”

Joan Glover helps client Michael Olabode pick out a suit. Photo: Elisia Seeber

The 34-year-old worked in the banking sector in Nigeria for more than 10 years and was an operations manager of a branch before deciding to move to Canada in April.

“It has not been easy getting a job,” Olabode said. “Most of the interviewers, they want Canadian experience and education, so it has been a tough.”

He is now working towards his Finance NBA in business analytics at Simon Fraser University to improve his future job prospects, but without any income coming in yet, he couldn’t afford a new suit for his first day at work.

“I really do appreciate it,” Olabode said.

“I hope to come back and donate someday.”

‘Changing lives’

Beley, now the operations manager, originally got involved four years ago because of an interest in textile sustainability and clothing waste. She hasn’t looked back.

By day she works for a clean tech start up but in her spare time after work she’s sorting suits and boots.

“I just realized how perfect it was,” Beley said. “There’s a need and it gets filled right away.”

Sarah Beley, Working Gear operations manager. Photo: Elisia Seeber

When asked what had kept her around so long, Beley replied: “I think, just helping people.”

“How simple it is to help change someone’s life completely,” she said.

“One thing I have realized is, if you give someone a new outfit the way society will treat them will be completely different from before.”

‘Eye-opening experience’

For 16-year-old Olivia, it’s been an eye-opening experience to volunteer at the charity.

“I love the characters, some of them are so funny,” she said with a smile.

“They are so grateful and always so appreciative when they are leaving.

“It’s made me realize how lucky I am and how appreciative everyone else can be.”

Her mom said they’d be continuing to volunteer for the foreseeable future.

“We actually really look forward to coming down here,” Glover said.

“We all get very busy with our own lives and you come down here and you’re not focussed on yourself, you’re focussed on helping others and it’s a great feeling.

“It has been pretty amazing to work with people and see how [Working Gear] can benefit them.”

As for Olabode, who was leaving with a suit for his new job, he couldn’t have been more grateful.

“Thanks for coming to my rescue,” he said, as he walked out the door.

Find more information on Working Gear online or contact 778-877-0147.

If you have any stories you’d like to share, email Elisia at elisia@vancouverisawesome.com.