More than a job: Celebrating 60 years of GSI

John Knowles, CEO of Good Samaritan Industries (GSI), welcomed me into his office with a big smile and an even bigger heart before announcing we needed to step out for a minute to sing happy  birthday to a staff member.

Out in the foyer, staff (and me) gathered for cake and well wishes, while a group of high school kids wandered in to one of the meeting rooms for job training. In the warehouse, employees sort and pack all sorts of donations, from clothes to bedding to shoes and accessories. And in the canteen staff are busy preparing food.

The place is a hive of activity where people genuinely seem to love their jobs.

GSI is a Uniting Church WA agency providing employment opportunities for people in WA living with disability. This year, GSI are celebrating their 60th anniversary, and there is much to celebrate.

In 1954, Rev Ralph Sutton, a Methodist Minister, was inspired by the work of American organisation, Goodwill Industries, after attending an assembly of the World Council of Churches. Under the  philosophy of ‘Not charity – but a chance’, Ralph set to work on starting a similar organisation in Perth. At the time, Ralph was the Superintendent Minister at Wesley Church, now known as Uniting  Church in the City, Wesley Perth.

The first Good Samaritan shop, selling near new clothes, opened in 1959 on Murray Street in Perth’s CBD. The shop was staffed by volunteers and one employee, Bernice Moorhouse. At the time,  Bernice was just 16 years old, working as a seamstress. Bernice became one of GSI’s longest serving employees, retiring in 2012. In 1961, a factory opened in Welshpool and the organisation  continued to grow. Rev Ralph Sutton passed away in 1967, but his dream for Good Samaritan Industries has lived on.

While the beloved Good Sammy stores are a public face for the organisation, GSI does so much more than sell preloved clothes. Now based out of Canning Vale, GSI employs over 300 people with a disability (over 500 people in total) across 29 Good Sammy stores in WA and their Canning Vale warehouse. In 2017, GSI helped 1 052 people with employment support, 411 people in finding  and keeping jobs, 73 people with support to build independence and 220 students with workplace learning. They also offer support for people engaging with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

The wider community also loves GSI, with 6 026 tonnes of goods donated and 1.38 million customers last year alone. GSI also employs 230 dedicated volunteers throughout their organisation.

John Knowles said that while the organisation has grown and expanded over the years, they have always kept to their key mission of providing employment opportunities for people living with a disability.

“The mission in the very early days was to create employment for people with disabilities,” John said. “Over the years that has stayed a central aim of GSI; it’s what we’re known for, but it’s grown.

“Even though we’re working with people that might not be ready for employment now, we’re focussing on improving people’s employability, even if it’s not to end up working for us.

“It could be training, confidence, transport training. A very large number of people with disabilities rely on public transport to get around, it’s critical to employment.

“We’ve helped people start up their own businesses; there’s a whole range of things. The world is changing as to what constitutes employment. We’ve stayed true to that central cause, we’ve just  got a little more deft with it.

“We’re really focussing on building peoples independence to either sustain them in their job or get them ready for work,” John said.

As well as providing support, training and a safe working environment, Good Samaritan Industries provides an enjoyable place to work. GSI holds various social activities including an annual ball,  as well as regularly recognising the achievements and milestones of its staff. John, himself, regularly visits the Good Sammy stores and said that it’s always a fun environment – which is important for everyone in the day-to-day grind.

Working with Good Samaritan Industries is more than a job, it’s a social and support network.

“A big thing for people with disabilities is the friendships,” John said. “Not just friendships between people with a disability, but between all staff. If you go to the stores, a really well-run store is a  team and doesn’t care whether you’re a person with a disability, a volunteer or a store manager. That store only hums if all parts are working together and the only way they work together is if they get on together.

“The social side of it – events out of it – the day-to-day stuff. When you stop for a cup of coffee in the morning, when you get to work five minutes early, the banter, it’s all that stuff. If I go visit a store, there’s a bit of laughter and cheekiness.”

While stable employment helps pay the bills, it can also help provide some of the other social scenarios all humans need and crave. However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics report that in 2012 almost half of people living with a disability in Australia are unemployed.

“Take disability out of it, the workplace is a really important part of our lives, for those who work,” John said. “It’s true of people with disabilities and it’s true of all of us.

“Isolation, not having enough money, not having a lot of friends; work is a really important part in helping to break down those barriers. It’s not the only solution, it’s not the silver bullet, but it’s an  important part of the patchwork quilt.”

John said that while Good Samaritan Industries is a well-loved community agency, it has always aimed to live out its core mission of Christian service, first through the Methodist and now Uniting  Church. Ten percent of GSI’s donations come from bins located at Uniting Churches around WA, and each year GSI financially support the Uniting Church WA’s Multicultural Ministry.

“The church played an unforgettable role in the vision, ” John said. “Now that it’s become more of a business, we don’t forget – and should not forget – that we’re an agency of the church and  what we’re doing here is not only on behalf of the church, but an expression of that original vision of the Christian faith.”

Dedication to work

Many staff at Good Samaritan Industries stay with the organisation for decades; a testament to the life of the place.

Courtney Rattray started working with GSI 35 years ago. After a few years with the organisation she had a brief period working in other jobs around Perth, and 21 years ago came back to GSI. Courtney currently works on the register in the Morley store and said that while working in customer service has its challenges, it’s a great, supportive and social place to work. And it helps pay the  bills.

Courtney’s mum also works at GSI, in the Osborne Park store.

“We used to have a shop in Yokine,” Courtney said. “I was there when the shop first opened over 30 years ago, and mum was working there when the shop was closing down.”

Courtney said she likes getting the chance to serve the regular customers in the shop, some of who come in daily for a chat.

“It’s like any job, it has its moments,” she said. “It’s just always been a good company to work for.”

Inspired?

To celebrate their 60th anniversary, a book exploring the first 35 years of Good Samaritan Industries has just been published. A Chance, not Charity, by Di Rook, is now available. Contact Good Samaritan Industries on 9463 0500 for more info.

A worship service was also held on Sunday 25 November at Uniting Church in the City, Wesley Perth, to celebrate the occasion, as well as celebrations in each Good Sammy store.

International Day of People with a Disability will be celebrated on Monday 3 December. Visit idpwd.com.au for more info.

For more information on Good Samaritan Industries and how you can connect, visit goodsamaritan.com.au

Heather Dowling

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