Edgar James Helms (1863-1942), a man admired for his uncommon character and entrepreneurial vision, is credited as the founder of the movement that would grow into Goodwill Industries®.
Helms was born near Malone, NY, on January 19, 1863. As a young man, he tried his hand at law and newspaper publishing, but felt called to the ministry. In 1889, he enrolled in Boston University Theological School. Helms and two fellow students requested that the City Missionary Society support them in opening a full-scale settlement house in the North End.
Instead, Helms was offered a struggling inner city mission in Boston’s South End, Morgan Chapel, established a generation earlier by Henry Morgan. The young minister was appalled at the conditions faced by immigrants who found themselves in a new country without jobs and sometimes desperate for food, clothing and shelter. Helms began going door-to-door in Boston’s wealthiest districts asking for donations of clothing and household goods. Goodwill differed from many charities of the day, operating a business model where donated goods were repaired and restored, then sold for profit. The profits were used to pay workers who helped refurbish those goods. Helms hired people in need — many of whom were considered unemployable — to do this work. Employees were paid $4 a day. When money was scarce, workers were given $5 clothing vouchers.
Although it wasn’t until 1915 that the term Goodwill Industries was coined, 1902 became known as the year Goodwill was born. With the help of Methodist Church funding, Helms went on to help establish Goodwill Industries organizations across the U.S., and by 1920, there were 15 Goodwills. [Today, Goodwill is officially a secular organization, but we still maintain cordial relations with the Methodist Church and many other churches, synagogues and temples.]
In Southern California, the first Goodwill was established by Katherine Higgins, who came to Los Angeles by train with her widowed mother in 1916. She was called the “Angel of the Plaza,” because she began Goodwill in the heart of L.A., on Marchessault Street, which runs into Olvera Street. Higgins gathered large burlap coffee sacks to collect goods and sell them in our first store. Goodwill Southern California employed many low-income immigrants, as in Boston, as well as low-income local residents. Higgins started health care programs for working parents, day care programs, and English as a Second Language classes.
From our humble temporary quarters, we moved in the early 1920s to the second floor of the “Baker Block”, a beautiful old building on North Main Street. Unfortunately that building was demolished in 1942. The land on which our L.A. Campus stands today was donated to Goodwill Southern California in the early 1930s by a generous couple who chose to remain anonymous. The facility was constructed from 1935 to 1938. The office/cafeteria section, auditorium and clearance center were added to the original building in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Today, Goodwill Southern California operates 82 retail stores, 47 attended donation centers, three campuses, five Career Resource Centers and three WorkSource Centers throughout Los Angeles (north of Rosecrans Ave.), Riverside and San Bernardino counties