The Kodiak High School is home to the town’s newest thrift store, Thread Bear.
Thread Bear, which sells upcycled clothing, is run by special needs students ages 18 to 22 in the Kodiak Island Borough School District. The goal is for students to learn life skills by running the store.
“I really wanted to open a business so that the students can generate enough money to be able to learn how to budget, learn how to grocery shop, and learn how to cook and prepare lunch,” said Corrie Davis, a special education teacher who manages the store alongside the students.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that students with special needs have access to free public education until age 22. The 15 students who work in the store can use their revenue to shop for groceries and prepare their meals each day. They also learn how to create a budget and develop healthy work habits such as arriving on time and interacting with customers.
The store, opened last month, was supported through a $1,500 grant from the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and a $1,900 grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. All clothes sold in the store were donated by members of the public.
Davis said the idea for the store came because the district was having a hard time finding places where students could learn employment skills. She realized that if students needed a place to practice vocational and business skills, she would have to create that place.
The idea for a consignment store came from Geoff Smith, director of special services for the school district. Smith said he was inspired by a visit to a school district in Minnesota that had a similar store. According to the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, Kodiak’s shop is the only one of its kind in the state.
“The biggest benefit is it’s allowing them to take skills that they’ve learned and incorporate them in real-life situations,” Smith said.
Students can apply math skills to the cash register and communication skills to interactions with customers. “It’s giving a real-life purpose to why we’re learning these skills, which hopefully will lead to increased student independence,” he said.
Davis said the store helps students learn how to arrive at work on time, how to dress for work, what to pack for lunch and how to act during a break.
“For some guys it’s easier than for others, but everybody has to start somewhere,” she said. “We’re hoping to teach the soft skills in a safe environment that’s not super fast-paced, that can meet everybody’s needs… and then we’ll try some volunteer internships at other businesses.”
Davis said she hopes students will gain multiple employment experiences to list on their resume.
“They’ll have those soft skills down, and they’ll hopefully be ready to get a paid job in Kodiak,” she said.
While it has been difficult to find business-owners in town who are able to hire these students, Davis said she hopes employers “will recognize that we are putting forth this effort and will be willing to take a risk and hire people that they wouldn’t necessarily normally hire.”
The new store has also partnered with high school business students, who designed the Thread Bear storefront sign and manage the store’s bookkeeping.
The store may serve an even more significant purpose than Davis expected in light of the recent closure of the Kodiak office of the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, announced earlier this month.
“That is going to affect us tremendously,” she said. “Vocational rehabilitation was really the first step for a lot of our students after high school... They would help them find what kind of job would be good for them, help them get a placement, provide job coaching for them. Without a face-to-face person to meet with, a lot of that is going to fall on the school district or on Hope Community Resources, or people just won’t get employment.”
Davis said the option of unemployment can be devastating for some of these students.
“When you don’t have employment, your risk of not having a fulfilling life goes through the roof. It’s hard to find meaning when you don’t have something to wake up and do in the morning,” she said. “Employment gives a lot of people a reason to get out of bed, to get motivated and to get out, and that’s where you meet your friends. It’s going to have a really negative impact on a lot of people in town.”
While Kodiak residents will still be able to access Department of Vocational Rehabilitation services through their satellite office, Davis said the remote office may mean “more hoops to jump through.”
“I have a feeling we’ll see a lot fewer Kodiak residents using the department of vocational rehab,” she said.
For some students interested in fashion, the store represents the ideal job, and they will begin putting together an outfit of the week to promote Thread Bear through Facebook. For others, the store is a stepping stone for other employment.
“We’re just trying to find different ways to give kids exposure to different jobs, so that when we do start a job search for them, we know what they like or don’t like, so they’re not wasting their time or their employer’s time,” Davis said.
While the students in the program are eager to tackle the tasks of managing the store, other high school students are still warming up to the idea. Traffic in the store has been low so far.
“I think they’re still a little afraid. There’s a little bit of stigma attached to looking at secondhand clothing,” Davis said. “We try to let kids know that we have a lot of new things with tags on them still, and we’re trying to brainstorm ways to take that stigma away because there shouldn’t be a stigma. Pretty much every adult I’ve ever talked to will shop at a thrift store.”
The store is open to students during the lunch hour. It is also open to the public on Monday from 3:30 p.m. to 4:40 p.m.
Davis encouraged the public to donate clothes and shop at the store. Clothing donations can be dropped off at the high school front desk.