By Catherin Kaufman
Special to the Daily Journal
OXFORD – A local Oxford thrift shop aims to hire only employees with special needs and mental health issues to create suitable jobs and opportunities for them.
Holding Hands Resale Shop was opened in January 2013 to create a safe working environment for those with mental and physical health challenges.
Mother and entrepreneur, Donna Howard, opened Holding Hands almost four years ago to give some the opportunity they may have never had at other jobs. Holding Hands’ mission statement is to employ persons with special needs in a safe work environment to help them achieve independence and self respect. Each employee is provided specialized training matched for their unique abilities, assuring a high level of success and accomplishment.
At age 14, Donna’s daughter, Cassie Howard, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was working at a local grocery store as a bag clerk. Cassie Howard did not gain the respect or patience she deserved, and Donna Howard saw a change was needed.
After visiting a similar thrift shop in Nashville six years ago that the owner had opened to provide a job opportunity for his own daughter diagnosed with autism, Howard was inspired to open the Oxford business.
“I have always appreciated corporations who recognize the need to employ disabled persons,” she said. “However, very few people are willing to. I was director of radiology at a hospital in Booneville, Mississippi, and I quit my job to put everything I had into this store. It took off and it’s been great.”
With 10 employees working under Howard, she said almost every week, someone comes in looking for a job. Howard said the hardest part about her business is turning away potential employees due to a full capacity staff.
Holding Hands Resale Shop is a non-profit business funded through monetary donations from the community along with clothing donations, household items, and furniture. The store reaches $15,000 in sales each month, and had gross sales of nearly $190,000 last year. Holding Hands brings in 50 to 70 transactions per day.
Howard said the Oxford location is the only store nationwide so far, though she plans to open more stores throughout Mississippi and the U.S. in the future.
“I hope to open another franchise, though it would take a lot of extra work and time,” she said. “Right now, to expand this store would require a larger facility and additional money. This store is just too small, and we’re overflowing. I would love to get a larger building.”
Providing more than 4,000 hours of work to persons who would have otherwise be unemployed, Holding Hands helps people throughout Oxford, offering opportunities some may have never received. William Ward, a Holding Hands employee since August 2013, enjoys his job and is thankful to Donna Howard for everything she has done.
“I love my job here, and I am a very hard worker,” he said. “I do anything Ms. Donna asks me to do.”
Holding Hands also has many volunteers from Oxford High School and the University of Mississippi.
Marti White, a former Holding Hands volunteer, saw an opportunity to give back to her community by offering a few hours of help at the store.
“Volunteering for Holding Hands gave me a new prospective in life,” she said. “A lot of people take things for granted and don’t take time to appreciate the amazing things people like Donna Howard do for others in the world.
“Being able to see these employees have the opportunity to maintain a stable paying job in a safe environment brings me happiness. I was able to volunteer and see each employee helping out, taking care of customers, and unpacking boxes full of donations, all while carrying huge smiles on their faces.”
Donna Howard never knew how successful her business would become, but she was willing to alter her career and life to pursue a dream she was passionate about. Howard appreciates all the support and generosity she has received during this endeavor and dreams of opening more stores.