A new boutique thrift shop has opened in Hopkins to provide employment to people with disabilities and foster inclusion within the community.

Gateways Thrift Shop, 4 Shady Oak Road (Suburban Square), Hopkins, recently celebrated its grand opening. The shop is the culmination of a vocational pilot program through the special needs agency Sha’arim.

Currently based in Minnetonka, Sha’arim began in 1999 as an organization committed to providing opportunities to those in the Jewish community with special needs.

Since then, the organization has expanded its programming by offering educational and vocational training for anyone with disabilities, including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.

“We want to look at ourselves as being a life-cycle organization,” said Layah Shagalow, associate director of Sha’arim. “So as the needs arise in the community, we’re there to have something in place so that there’s a meaningful inclusive environment at every stage of life.”

The thrift store employees are among the 10.3% of Minnesotans with disabilities “desperately seeking meaningful employment.”

And Sha’arim has responded.

“A lot of what they talk about is wanting to be members of their community in the same way that their peers are,” Shagalow said.

Participants start as interns and go through a six- to eight-month training program, learning the vocational and social skills required in a work setting.

A lot of what the training helps develop are life skills and teamwork, explained Neely Silverman, the vocational training and development coordinator for the pilot vocational program that takes place at the Minnetonka location. The location also accepts donations for the new thrift store.

By training the employees, they get to know them on an individual level and how best to highlight their strengths in order to “carve out a place that makes sense for them in our store so that they know they have longterm employment with us,” she said. For some people, that could be customer service, and for others, it could be sorting donations.

“Acceptance means being valued for the skills and the strengths that they have, because they have skills and strengths,” Shagalow said. “Sometimes it takes a moment to reconsider the way that you look at skills and strengths to understand what those might be, but they are there and they are so valid and ... so worthy.”

After completion of the program, participants receive a certificate, along with a letter of recommendation, to apply for work either at the organization’s new thrift shop or elsewhere.

Shagalow said the goal is to fill the entire employee roster for a whole week at the thrift shop with employees from the program.

That includes Shmuel Kutoff, one of the newly trained interns working at the shop. So far, his favorite part of the job is organizing the furniture that comes in as donations.

“Shmuel is a master organizer,” Shagalow said.

Through the store, community members can get to know the employees on a personal level by engaging at both the donation center and retail store.

“This is inclusion at its core; everyone has something to contribute,” she said, adding that the thrift store is also a way to promote recycling and ethical shopping practices.

Shoppers can also feel good knowing that 100% of their purchases go back to support the program.

Donations of new or gently used clothing and household items can be made at the Minnetonka center, 2851 Hedberg Drive. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday.

Those with donations of furniture are asked to call ahead and send a photograph.

While it took some time to start up the store, including finding the right location, Shagalow said they are very happy to open the shop in Hopkins.

“We feel very welcomed in the community and we’re glad they are a part of this with us,” she said, adding, “That’s the first part in building an inclusive community.”

Thrift shop hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

For more information about the vocational program (the next class begins in January) and Gateways, visit shaarim.org or call 952-303-5276.

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Kristen Miller is the community editor for the Sun Sailor, covering the communities of Plymouth, Hopkins and Minnetonka. Email story ideas to kristen.miller@ecm-inc.com

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