Learning and Working

Before becoming the store manager for nonprofit Handy Ups N’ Downs Thrift Stores, Catherine Lopresti spent 20 years working in the retail industry, where she learned the harsh realities of working for the bottom line.

“[In the private sector], there is no ‘I will work with you’ or ‘we can do things differently.’ Everything there is black and white. Where here, we play a lot more around in the gray,” she said. “In a different environment, people would just be fired and forgotten, and I really don’t think that’s fair to do to people, because everybody deserves help when they need it.”

The Mental Health Association of Fulton and Montgomery Counties – which is observing Mental Health Awareness Month this month – operates the two Handy Ups N’ Downs Thrift Stores, which are located at 338 N. Comrie Ave., Johnstown, and 101 Guy Park Ave., Amsterdam. The stores operate like typical thrift stores, selling donated clothing, furniture and other household items, but the merchandise and the stores’ revenues come second to the program’s mission of helping individuals with mental illness re-enter the work force.

“We’re here for the employees,” Lopresti said. “We try to provide a nurturing environment for people, an environment where they feel safe to learn things without being judged or criticized for their problems. We try to build up their self-esteem and give them some experience and knowledge.”

The Handy Ups N’s Downs Thrift stores have two full-time store managers, Lopresti and Marlene Nellis, and nine part-time employees. Lopresti explained that the part-timers come from several different possible populations, including people with mental health problems as well as individuals fulfilling community-service obligations, BOCES students, students through the Workforce Solutions PIC program and individuals receiving Department of Social Services benefits who need to fulfill work requirements.

Kathy Cromie, the deputy director for the Mental Health Association of Fulton and Montgomery Counties, said Handy Ups N’ Downs Thrift Stores has been a part of her organization’s “affirmative business” program since 1991. She said the primary purpose of the thrift shops is providing job-training skills for individuals who may be living with a mental illness.

“Someone who has a mental illness may struggle with being able to maintain employment, and what we offer them with these stores is we offer them job coaching; we offer them customer-service training; we offer them interpersonal skills training, and there’s a lot of coaching and mentoring and support that people may not find in the traditional work force,” Cromie said. “I think we’re pretty successful. I think we’ve had many people who’ve come through our program and have been successful in learning those core skills, and they have been confident enough to go out and get a traditional retail job, whether it’s in a big-box store or in a mall somewhere.”

The Mental Health Association of Fulton and Montgomery Counties, which receives funding from New York state and the two counties, pays for the cost of running the stores, including the property leases, utility costs and the salary of Lopresti and Nellis, as well as the wages of some, but not all, of the employees of the stores. Lopresti said the employees who come to the thrift shops from BOCES or DSS are not paid by her agency. She said the individuals with mental health issues who work for Handy Ups N’s Downs come from a variety of sources.

“They could be referred by the agency, [they could come from] ads in the paper [or from] people right off the street like any other business,” she said.

The job positions at the thrift shops include sales associates, who work with customers and help sort donations to the store, cashiers who use basic math skills to compute sales transactions, and senior sales associates/supervisors, who help Lopresti and Nellis run the store.

Lopresti said that while she doesn’t have any advanced training in providing counseling or therapy, she does know how to manage people with mental health problems in a workplace setting.

“It’s still just working with people,” she said, likening her Handy Ups N’ Downs experience to work she’s done for big- name retailers like The Limited or Dots LLC. “It could be somebody who has bipolar disorder. It could be somebody who has depression. It could be somebody who has had problems with addiction, it could be anything. If I feel that one of the staff needs additional support in a certain area, whether it’s advocacy to deal with different issues they have personally or therapy or if they are very depressed or suicidal, we have resources for that. I’ll contact someone in the agency and they will find them help.”

Cromie said some of the people who work for Handy Ups N’ Downs have enjoyed it so much that they have worked there long term.

“We’ve had some employees who’ve worked five to 10 years and risen to supervisory levels,” Cromie said. “These stores are very unique, it’s not only a program, they are thrift stores that do a lot of give-back for the community, and some of the employees really like that multifaceted aspect of it.”