Deseret Industries celebrates 75 years

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 1:55 PM

Rachel J. Trotter, Standard-Examiner Correspondent

OGDEN — In 1938 when Deseret Industries got its start, the Great Depression was nearing its end and many were still jobless. Many LDS families could not afford to buy clothing or other household items.

“Deseret Industries still has the same central purposes as it did in 1938,” said Neil Newell, welfare services manager of Public Affairs for the LDS Church. One of the main goals of the D.I. is to help people who don’t have a job to get one.

In 1938, as church leaders were trying to help alleviate unemployment and poverty problems, church member Stewart Eccles came on the scene. According to an Ensign article from July 1988, which details the history of the D.I., Eccles had an idea of how to provide a job for himself and many others. The idea of establishing a type of Goodwill store had been presented previously, but Eccles had the idea to have people work in the store who were down on their luck and needing to find employment. Eccles met with church leaders and the idea of Welfare Industries was born, but Brother Eccles didn’t like that name so much.

He felt that for too many people welfare meant a public “dole” program. He worked with Harold B. Lee, who was director of the welfare program at the time, and they came up with the name of deseret, meaning honeybee, and industries. Both they felt would carry the connotation of industry and thrift.

Newell said the plans for the first shop were unveiled by John Andreas Widtsoe. Widtsoe, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles at the time, wrote an article for the improvement era with the four purposes of D.I. “First, those who have will be given another type of opportunity to help those who have not. Second, waste will be reduced by keeping our possessions in use as long as possible. Third, the work of renovation will employ many now unemployed. Fourth, articles in common use, of good quality, will be available at a low cost.”

Eccles was put in charge of the first store in downtown Salt Lake City. After collection drives in the area, the first retail sales were made on Sept. 1, 1938.

As time passed, the D.I. evolved. During World War II, when unemployment was at an all-time low, the workforce changed, with older and handicapped employees joining the effort.

In the 1950s, the D.I. started some manufacturing operations, and by 1963 the program was almost self-sustaining.

As the ’70s rolled in, more changes came to the program, and some extra training was given to employees, so they could become more self-sufficient in the workforce once their time was complete with the D.I. That idea has stayed intact, and the rehabilitation/self-sustainment arm of the D.I. is still growing.

There are now 42 stores spread throughout Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington. Newell said the stores are driven by the church population in the area and the need for a D.I.

HARRISVILLE — Visit any Deseret Industries and you’ll find low prices and lots of merchandise, but what most shoppers don’t know is all that is happening behind the scenes.

For the past 75 years the D.I. has been not only offering affordable merchandise, but giving employees a huge leg up in life as well.

Neil Newell, welfare services manager of Public Affairs for the LDS Church, said many people don’t know how deep the mission of helping the underemployed goes with the D.I. “It’s a place for those who don’t have a job to get a job, and for the unemployed to be employable,” he said. “It also gives the Saints a chance to give a second life to things we may not have use for, but someone else may treasure.”

The D.I. has changed over the years with changing economic times and has evolved to help a person who is employed with the D.I. essentially change his or her life.

Newell said some people find themselves without a job for many reasons, and the D.I. can help take away those reasons and offer hope.

“We hire those than can’t get or keep a job because of language barriers, disabilities or many other reasons,” Newell said. “It’s basically a start over.”

As employees are hired, they are given a job coach and a mentor. The job coach is someone who works for the LDS Church and specializes in helping the employee set short and long-term goals, along with creating a plan for other employment outside of D.I.

A mentor is usually someone called by the employee’s Bishop from his or her LDS ward. That person helps chart progress and offers some counseling or advice. The group works together as a team and helps that person to get the certifications and education they may need beyond the D.I. to find sustainable employment. They also help with networking, so it will be easier to find a job.

“They are not just there to sell or to wash stuff. They are there to transform themselves,” Newell said. Oftentimes the actual labor of the work at D.I. is really just a “side job.” The real job is to help those employees to find a job where they can have complete self-reliance.

Every day an employee comes to work, they work with that job coach/adviser to complete those goals. The mentors also work with businesses to provide partnerships for the D.I. employees to find work as well.

“We want to get them in that door,” Newell said.

Oftentimes job shadows or internships are set up in a particular career the employee has a real interest in, to see if it’s something they would like to pursue.

“It gives them a good idea. They kind of business shop,” Newell said.

While the mission of giving people without work an opportunity to work has stayed the same for the past 75 years, the idea of stacking the deck in favor of the employee to succeed after work at the D.I. has evolved and become an amazing program, he said.

Last year the store had 8,600 associates, and 3,273 were placed in successful jobs/careers. Usually the program takes about 39 weeks to complete. Some stay with the D.I. for many years, but the main idea is to get them in and get them out on a track doing what they want to do, Newell said.

Newell said careful attention is paid to make sure the thrift store is still offering the best to shoppers. Employees sort through donated items and make a good, better, best assessment, and donating items is very streamlined, with stake pick-up days as well as an efficient drop-off process at the stores. But Newell said the D.I. is so much more than that. “A thrift store is what people see, but the D.I. is a place of hope for people that have never had a break in their lives.”

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