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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Rocio Mendoca works as a job coach in the clothes processing department at the Layton Deseret Industries in Layton on July 11.
Our job is to train someone so well that they get so good at their job and become so useful and effective that they will find a better job and leave. And we want to do that for as many associates as we possibly can. —Dave Mecham, manager of the Layton Deseret Industries

LAYTON, UTAH — Stacy Fredericks had a pretty good life, all things considered. She had a good husband who worked hard to provide for her and their three beautiful children. They were't wealthy — not by any means — but they were able to live comfortably enough that she could stay home with the kids and focus all of her time and considerable talent on the only job she had ever wanted: being a full-time homemaker.

Then her husband got sick, and her happy, simple world was turned upside down.

“My husband couldn’t work, and I had no real job skills,” Stacy said. “I had been to a little college, but not enough to qualify me for anything that I could do to support our family.”

A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Stacy went to her bishop, or ecclesiastical leader, for counsel and support.

“I wasn’t really looking for a handout,” she said. “I was really trying to find long-term answers, because we were in the middle of long-term challenges.”

In April 2012, the bishop referred her to the Layton Deseret Industries store for employment and training.

“I was a little nervous about that,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, working at DI would be OK, but I didn’t really see it as a lasting solution to our family crisis.”

Stacy wasn’t alone in her limited perspective of Deseret Industries. For most of those who are familiar with the chain of 42 LDS Church-owned thrift shops in seven western United States, DI is all about stuff: the stuff you donate, and the stuff you buy at really cheap prices — including, occasionally, hidden treasures. Many are also aware that the LDS Church utilizes Deseret Industries merchandise to provide for the poor and needy as well as part of its extensive humanitarian outreach during times of tragedy and crisis around the world. And some are aware that DI provides jobs for people who might not be able to find work anywhere else.

People like Stacy.

But if you ask those who run the stores, either on a local or church-wide level, they will tell you that DI is about people, not stuff.

“The stuff is what makes the miracles happen,” said Dave Mecham, manager of the Layton Deseret Industries store to which Stacy was referred. “It’s the vehicle that drives the program. But the program is about hope. It’s about giving people a second chance. It’s about taking people where they are in their lives and finding ways to connect them with work that elevates them financially, emotionally and spiritually.”

Which is not to say that Deseret Industries is a religiously oriented employment placement service, because according to Jessica Saari, development specialist at the Layton store, it’s much more than that.

“This is something greater than the sum of its parts,” Saari said. “Our job is to connect people with meaningful work. In order to do that, we ask people to trust us, and to allow us into their lives. We work with them in a lot of different ways — ways that really make a difference in people’s lives. It’s amazing to be part of that, to see that happen.

“People often like to brag about the treasures they find at DI,” Saari continued. “They don’t know that the biggest treasure at DI is found in the way the program here transforms lives.”

For Stacy, that transformation began in the sorting room, where most new DI associates, as the workers are called, start their training. It is here that they learn the basics of employment — punctuality, dependability, following instructions, doing quality work, working as a team and, if needed, personal hygiene — as they sort through donated clothing, tools, electronic gadgets and household items to determine which ones will be cleaned and prepared for the sales floor.

“We’re not training them to work in our store,” said Brent Palmer, manager of field operations for the entire Deseret Industries system. “We’re trying to give them skills that will help them find a better job somewhere else. Unlike most retail operations, we actually want turnover. We want them to learn and grow and improve and move on to something better.”

To that end, the DI program includes a support team that works one-on-one with each associate.

“The store manager is ultimately responsible for how well folks do in his or her store,” Palmer said. In Mecham’s case, that means he is responsible for 160 associates at any given time — a responsibility he does not take lightly, especially since he is a product of the Deseret Industries system himself. “I worked at DI while I was going to college,” he said. “And I kept coming back. Something about the spirit of the place, and how it makes such a different in people’s lives. I just always wanted to be part of this.”

As manager, Mecham says his priorities are clear. “My bosses want to make sure every associate is receiving the mentoring, training and experience they need,” he said. “They also worry a lot about customer service. But as far as sales are concerned, as long as we’re making enough to cover our expenses they’re OK with that.”

“We’re not here to make money, and we’re not here to just provide employment,” Mecham continued. “Those are good, worthwhile objectives. It’s just not what we’re about.”

Working under the direction of store managers and assistant managers are job coaches, who work with the associates in their respective areas of the store, teaching skills and providing training through meaningful daily interaction. Each store also has a development specialist, a licensed counselor in a field like vocational rehabilitation or social work, who works closely with each associate to help them assess needs and create plans for lifetime success and independence.

There is also support coming from the associate’s bishop (every associate, whether LDS or not, is referred to the program by an LDS bishop), who not only meets with the individual on a regular basis, but who also assigns a mentor to maintain close contact with them even beyond the time they are working at Deseret Industries.

“This is a comprehensive and robust approach to training,” said Layne Daybell, manager of development services for the DI system. “We don’t want bishops to just send individuals to us. We want them to invest in those individuals.”

For Stacy, this investment was important.

“I was stunned,” she said. “I had more support than I thought I had. There were all these people around me, interested in me and helping me. It made me feel like, with their help and support, I could accomplish something.”

With input and training from her support system, Stacy decided she wanted to become a receptionist. The DI Advanced Placement Program helped pay for classes at the Davis Applied Technology College in nearby Kaysville that sharpened her job skills. It also paid her wages while she got on the job training.

“Working at DI is not just a job,” Mecham said. “It’s a whole program aimed at helping people improve their lives. We give them training, we have job coaches to help them learn, we help them take classes and get on the job training and then we pay them while they take the skills we’ve given them and look for better jobs.”

According to Mecham, 88 percent of the people who follow the whole program, all the way to the Advanced Placement Program, leave Deseret Industries for better jobs.

“Our job is to train someone so well that they get so good at their job and become so useful and effective that they will find a better job and leave,” Mecham said. “And we want to do that for as many associates as we possibly can.”

The number of associates that can participate in DI programs increased dramatically earlier this year when DI officials at church headquarters established limitations on the number of hours associates can work each week. By limiting those hours, Deseret Industries has been able to significantly increase the number of associates who can be added to the program.

“Since April our associate count is up by 31 percent, and we have increased the capacity for associates within the system by nearly 800,” Daybell said. “That’s 800 individuals and families whose lives can be blessed through this program for whom we didn’t have room before the change.”

While there has been some criticism of the move because it limits the ability of some associates to make more money and receive full-time employment benefits, Saari pointed out that the DI program has always included helping associates work with Medicaid and other health and insurance options.

"DI employment has always been seen as temporary employment," she said. "Generally speaking, our associates are only with us for a matter of months. If we're not moving them on to something better — including better salaries and benefits — then the program isn't working the way it was designed to work."

Still, Palmer said the recent policy change was not an attempt to trim the operational budget.

“By the time we’re done, we will have hired 40-60 new full-time job coaches and other staff members in order to help train this influx of workers," he said. "So we haven’t really avoided a cost increase in this. We’ve just approached it in a different way so that more lives can be blessed.”

And lives are, indeed, being blessed. Today, a little more than a year after her first bewildered day working in the Deseret Industries sorting room, Stacy is working full-time, with full benefits, at a job she really enjoys.

“I’m very grateful,” she said. “I can honestly say I love my job. I don’t think everyone can say that, but I can.”

Email: jwalker@desnews.com