Before opening Karibu, Vivian had 25 years of managerial experience working with this community as a residential manager until one day in March of 2013 when she was handed a severance package. Vivian has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Ottawa and a diploma from Algonquin College but was still unable to find work for 18 months.
In order to find work for herself and stay within the field of Developmental Services, Vivian decided she was going to open her own store and hire people who also struggled to find employment. Vivian has partnered with organizations such as Corbrook, JVS and Ontario March of Dimes to focus on the developmentally disabled community.
The Karibu Thrift Store team is made up of 6 paid employees and 2 volunteers, all of whom have some disability.
Karibu means "welcome" in Swahili and Vivian says she wants that word to apply to everyone, "I want this to be a welcoming place people want to come in."
Karibu certainly does give off a welcoming vibe with its bright walls of teal, orange and fuchsia, European-themed decorations accompanied by the smooth sounds of '80s R&B. Customers liken the Scarborough shop to the boutiques of Queen West in Toronto's downtown.
What are some of the benefits of having such an inclusive store?
“It provides work for a person, that’s the big thing. I was unemployed for 18 months so I know the depression that goes along with being unemployed. I have a degree and a diploma and I couldn’t find work. People that have just their high school equivalency, people with a disability, they go through the same stages that I went through. It's horrible. It's horrible being at home with no purpose to getting up in the morning. I was determined to change that. The mission was to create work, and work experience because a lot of times people can't even get volunteer opportunities because of unions or employers not being knowledgeable or just not wanting people there.”
With your employees and volunteers, what are the most important skills they gain by working here?
They learn work skills, responsibilities like being on time, having to focus. They're not only building self-confidence but they're also learning pre-vocational skills and personal development skills, that's really what they're gaining here. They have fun. And they've all grown. Their decision making, their confidence; it's just fantastic. Some of them are even initiating conversations, which is a big deal. Especially for someone who has autism; to see them interacting or initiating conversations is huge.”
What has your feedback from this community and the community online been like?
“It’s been fantastic, the donations have exploded, and the feedback has been great. People have been very supportive of what I'm doing here. But I wish more employers would hire people and offer a volunteer opportunity, that’s what I want to come out of this.
I read that one of your aspirations is to move to a bigger facility, what other aspirations do you have for Karibu?
“My long term goal is to open another facility which also sells furniture. I would also like to have a training centre attached to it where people get pre-vocational skills at the centre and their work experience in the store. That's way down the line though; right now I'm just trying to get this one off the ground. I need to make this place self-sufficient then I can think about opening another one. But I know it's going to happen.
Karibu has been open for almost a year now, what has been the best part of the experience?
“Having this team; they're fun to work with. They're always playing music and laughing, I can joke around with them, I can ask them anything; it's a fun place to come to. I spend about 70 hours a week here and it doesn't feel like it. The store opens at 9 but I'm usually here by 8, I don't have to be but I enjoy coming to work in the morning. It's way different than before where I was going to work but I was not happy. As difficult as it is financially-emotionally, it's so much better for my wellbeing.”
For Vivian, the biggest challenge of operating Karibu Thrift Store, is getting customers through the door. Though there is a Facebook page and Twitter account for the store, Vivian says that most of her customers learn about it via word-of-mouth.
Karibu Thrift Store is located on St. Clair Ave. close to Kennedy Rd. in Scarborough.