For most of the year, those Goodwill Store & Donation Centers throughout the suburbs bring to mind one word -- dignity. The organization was born in a church basement in 1919 with a goal "to give individuals with disabilities a chance to earn a livelihood and enjoy the social, moral and spiritual blessings of society."
But in October, the suburban Goodwill stores become a thrifty Halloween headquarters. Billboards hawk Goodwill as the spot to scare up cheap costumes. A campy "Count Frugala" vampire poster hanging in one store draws shoppers' attention to all the Goodwill racks of used clothes craved by Halloween partygoers in search of everything from a zippered shirt to complete a disco look to the perfect dress to pull off the "Mad Men" secretary look.
"It's our biggest month by far," says Shannon Halverson, the marketing manager for Goodwill Industries of Northern Illinois, which includes suburban stores in Huntley and McHenry.
I understand why. Several years ago, after a little Goodwill hunting, my wife and I spent $4 to buy a child's suit jacket that provided the perfect accessory to a Frankenstein's monster get-up for one of our kids. But something about using Goodwill for Halloween nags at me.
Having donated clothes from dead loved ones, I can't help but think about the jacket we bought. Might it have been donated by a grieving mother who envisioned her dead child's suit being the pride and joy for a poor boy making his first communion?
I remember a Halloween party where a friend showed up wearing a fox stole where the animal's jaw was hinged so that it would clamp onto its own tail when it adorned a woman's neck. Everyone agreed it was a great, campy find. But I envisioned the donor being a misty-eyed widower remembering how his recently deceased wife wore that stole on the night he fell in love with her, and thinking it might become a treasured heirloom for another pair of lovebirds.
"I understand that completely," Halverson says. "Some community members do donate to Goodwill Industries of Northern Illinois with the thought that they will be helping to provide to someone who might not be able to otherwise afford these items."
But just as Goodwill "is grateful to shoppers for whatever the purpose of their purchase," Halverson says donors should be happy "to know their donations go to help our mission."
Halloween sales help fund the Huntley store's "Let's Go to Work!" program that allows people with barriers to employment find jobs in a workplace that offers management and support, Halverson says. Last year, the Northern Illinois area of Goodwill helped 4,848 people attain the tools and resources necessary to find and keep jobs. It helped more than 1,225 individuals and families with basic needs that included clothing worn to job interviews and jobs, transportation and child care. Goodwill offered financial support services such as tax preparation to more than 1,350 people, and Goodwill participants completed more that 15,829 hours of vocational and on-the-job training in the past year.
The Goodwill Industries of Metropolitan Chicago, which includes the bulk of suburban locations and stores in southern Wisconsin, provided services to 48,593 people last year.
"These services would not be available if it weren't for the sale of gently used items donated by generous community members," Halverson says.
The Goodwill store in Arlington Heights provides the perfect Halloween costumes for Rolling Meadows High School students Karolina Malesa, 18, of Arlington Heights, and Carlina Adame, 16, of Rolling Meadows. The teens volunteer to be patients in a mental asylum for the annual St. Pascal's Haunted House fundraiser in Chicago.
"We found these dress shirts so we're going to be crazy ex-girlfriends still wearing their old boyfriend's shirts," Malesa says.
At $3.99 each, the shirts are "a lot less than actually going out and buying a costume," Adame adds.
Their money all goes to support Goodwill and the good that charity does. Maybe that $6.99 double-breasted suit will be worn to the first college graduation in the family, or maybe it will be doused with fake blood for use in a zombie costume. Same for the brightly colored sweater by Ralph Lauren ($4.99), the Van Heusen and Joseph Abboud shirts ($2.99), the Hawaiian party shirts ($3.99), the white fedora hat ($4.99), clip-on tie ($.99) or the pair of 54-inch dress pants ($3.99).
Wading through Goodwill's racks, I find lots of shirts, pants, sweaters and ties that look as if they could have come from my closet today. That's really good news for anybody planning to trick-or-treat tomorrow dressed as a newspaper columnist.