When passion meets purpose, powerful things can happen and so goes the story of Dave Krikac and the GEAR Foundation. It doesn’t take long to realize that Dave, founder of The Gear Foundation and Our Thrift Store, along with his wife Sandy, is a man on a mission. A very personal one. At first glimpse, Our Thrift Store is a well-kept, fully stocked but fairly normal looking thrift store where one can find a gold mine of items to fit any person’s fancy — clothes, books, furniture, home goods, toys, seasonal items and more — all contributed by the public on a regular basis.
However, after second look, it’s quite obvious that this is a special place. The Foundation and Thrift Store are different from just about any other business of its kind. Started in 2004 as a response to a problem Dave and his wife Sandy observed in our county, the business has grown into a unique, one of a kind place that helps the special needs community in a very particular way.
In 2004, Dave was at a crossroads, deciding what was next for him professionally. “I was praying about a life change and trying to figure out what I was supposed to do,” he recalls. “As I was praying about it at the time, we told Sara, our daughter who has Austism, we were going to try and get her a job. She was graduating from high school and we found that there were no jobs for special needs kids. The more we looked into it, the more nothing was available,” he adds.
It was during this time that the idea for the GEAR Foundation was born. A business to provide jobs to the special needs community that would give them the employment and help them be an integral part of the larger community. The more Dave thought about it, the more he believed that if certain things fell into place as he was hoping, he would take it as a sign from above that he was supposed to move forward. He needed funding to underwrite his idea for a non-profit and he needed a place to put it.
It wasn’t long before friend and successful businessman, Rick Meyers of E-Sword.net, was talking with Dave over coffee, and Dave told him his idea. Without hesitation, Rick caught the vision and offered to fund the non-profit. Dave took that as a sign that the endeavor was meant to move forward. Dave’s church, Leiper’s Fork’s Grace Chapel, played an important part in the early days as well and folks there caught the vision of what Dave and Sandy were trying to do and helped and volunteered on many levels to get things up and running. Since day one of opening Our Thrift Store in 2005, under the umbrella of the GEAR Foundation, they have been profitable. They are not funded by government or state grants. They are funded by people donating stuff as they have been for 13 years.
“We started the foundation with four special needs kids. One from that time is still here. Our daughter Sara has now been working here for 13 years. The most fun part is watching Sara talk about being the matriarch of the organization,” he says with pride. “Beth Hughes is our oldest employee at 60 and our youngest is 17. Paul Sharp and Joann Cotton have been with us for 12 years each. It adds value to a community that needs it.”
Dave and his wife Sandy wanted to create a business where the gifts and talents of those in the special needs community would stand out in the workplace, give them a sense of pride in what they are doing, and bring the community into the purpose. “We have a 3-cogged approach,” he says. “We are an umbrella nonprofit and our name at the GEAR Foundation stands for several things. 1. Gainful Employment and Respect, 2. Greater Earning and Rewards (for a community), and 3. Grateful Employees and Relatives. When you impact the young adults, you impact their family,” he says.
With over 900 special needs adults in our county needing work yet finding themselves unemployed, Dave and his wife have played an integral part in providing them with an environment where they are making a valuable contribution to society. The entire point of the GEAR Foundation is to provide these individuals with work experiences that will help them discover and develop their unique abilities and outstanding potential.
“We want to help them achieve the highest degree of independence and self-respect possible,” he says. “Not only is this important to each special need individual, but it is also life changing to their families.”
The full business model of the GEAR Foundation is quite remarkable. “It’s a win, win, win. We have the umbrella of the GEAR Foundation and under that is Our Thrift Store as well as our Fulfillment center. The Thrift Store is the public face of what we are doing. Our kids can do their job out in the open and interact with the public and people get to see these young adults all around them. Then there is warehouse with packaging and fulfillment services. We also have an eBay business where young adults with mobility issues work as well as doing fulfillment work by packing and shipping socks for Dan Post cowboy certified socks,” he says.
There are a lot of moving parts to the organization of the Foundation. Their 6,000 square-foot warehouse is down the street from Our Thrift Store on Columbia, off Beasley Drive. Scheduling can be one of the biggest challenges. “The logistics of this are really quite miraculous,” he says.
“The mission is for people to see that our special needs kids are actually working and growing. That’s why we called it Our Thrift Store. Public can watch us run a business. A community. A family. Most of these kids get to do experiences that they’ve never done as a result. People have learned that these disabled young adults are a part of our community and they integrate into it.”
What are Dave’s hopes for the future?
“The past two to three years we’ve helped launch new thrift stores across the country. This is not a franchise. We have launched six thus far via other special needs parents who call and want to launch one in their communities,” he says with excitement. “There is one in Hookset, NH; Matthews, NC; Orland, FL; Rockdale, AL and more. If they get their own funding and building, we’ll turn over our business model and everything they need to learn how to get one up and running. We tell them this here’s how you do it. Everything you need to know. Point of sale. How you fundraise. Almost like teaching people how to fish.”
Unfortunately, Tennessee is in last place for special needs services out of all 50 states. “We want to be an advocate for young adults,” he adds. While not every employer can repeat the model of Our Thrift Store, Dave always challenges employers to create at least one job for a person with a disability. Every person has gifts and when paired with the right job, it gives them pride in what they can offer, helps them be contributing, tax paying members of their community and allows them to dream a little bigger. Everybody wins.