Brian Pfuhl doesn't hesitate when asked what he would do without Goodwill: "Nothing."

"I've never been so disabled in all my life like I am now," he said. "Nobody will give you a chance."

Not quite nobody.

A century ago, Goodwill Industries was established in Duluth with that very mission: "Not charity but a chance."

Pfuhl's cerebral palsy doesn't keep him from wanting to work — and Goodwill recognizes that. He's among the hundreds currently employed by the nonprofit in the region and among the thousands who have benefited from the "hand-up-not-hand-out" model over the years that helps break down barriers for folks who want to work.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"I've got the drive to get up every day, and I want to get up every day even though it hurts," said Pfuhl, 52, who has held a diverse range of roles in his working life and today wraps jewelry.

The work itself has evolved over the years, as different initiatives ebbed and flowed and Goodwill merged with Duluth Sheltered Workshop.

The challenges have evolved, too, just as they have at all brick-and-mortar apparel and furniture outlets. Goodwill thrift stores in the region saw sales drop nearly 8 percent between the most recent fiscal years, and online sales were flat.

For the next 100 years, maintaining the mission will mean bolstering the business model. Because for Pfuhl and others, the alternative — relying solely on Social Security — isn't an option.

"I'm just happy they employ people with disabilities," Pfuhl said, "and, you know, I need the paycheck."

In the beginning

The 10th Goodwill in the country opened at 1701 W. Michigan St. in 1919 and employed 24 people within a year.

"Collections were good and with three stores for outlet of goods there were ready sales for all the reconditioned clothing, shoes and furniture that was possible to get through the shops," an early history recounted.

Though that building burned within the next decade and countless other locations came and went — including a long stay at the Lincoln Park building that now houses Aerostich — Goodwill managed to meet a prediction set in 1928: "If everything goes without a set back the Duluth Goodwill is now on a sound basis and with a prosperous outlook."

Today it employs 408 people at 15 thrift store locations around the Northland and assists hundreds more throughout the region with community-based employment.

Greg Conkins was there when it moved into the former Goldfine's department store on Garfield Avenue, now the headquarters of the regional operation officially known as Goodwill Industries Vocational Enterprises.

"From the ground up I've pretty much seen it all," Conkins said. "It's been a good journey."

He started with the Duluth Sheltered Workshop in 1977 before it merged with Goodwill in 1979, as both focused on "employing people with barriers who may not find employment in the community where they lie," Conkins said.

Moving through a variety of management roles, he ran the once-robust manufacturing program that packaged Diamond matches, manufactured garden netting and stitched safety vests, among other products.

"At its peak the manufacturing department was $950,000 a year annually, and all that work was pretty much completed by individuals who had barriers to employment," he said. "Now we’re pretty much a retail sales operation with salvage market and lawn care and janitorial services."

Conkins retired briefly after 40 years with Goodwill but recently returned to oversee the salvage and mattress recycling business that started in 2004 and last year kept nearly 20,000 mattresses and 118 tons of scrap metal out of landfills.

The means keep changing, but the end stays the same. And continuing to change for the future, as spokesman Scott Vezina says, means "innovation in job creation and retail merchandising — and enhanced community presence and partnerships."

Jess Valure has worked at and through Goodwill in Duluth for the better part of 15 years. She's hoping to find a permanent desk job in health care when her current temporary gig is up. Ellen Schmidt /
Jess Valure has worked at and through Goodwill in Duluth for the better part of 15 years. She's hoping to find a permanent desk job in health care when her current temporary gig is up. Ellen Schmidt /

The will to work

You can tell Jessica Valure is a morning person. That wasn't always the case.

"There was actually a few-years-gap I didn't work whatsoever," she said. "I had a place to live, I had bills paid — I was on Social Security."

"Now I don't get it because I work," and she's fine with that.

In her decade-plus with Goodwill, the 35-year-old has built her resume at a variety of service jobs and has her heart set on something permanent in health care once her temporary gig at St. Luke's is up.

One recent resume booster should help that job search: Valure was recognized by Goodwill this summer for her work and achievements. She was humble about the award and said it pushes her to keep working harder and harder.

"I don't want to disappoint my family, or myself," she said.

Even when the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than twice the national average, and the interviews aren't showing up despite more job openings than people to fill them, Valure is motivated and confident she now has everything she needs to succeed, however long it takes.

"I don't give up easily. Sometimes I feel like it, but I won't."


1919: 10th Goodwill in the United States opens in Duluth at 1701 W. Michigan St.

1928: Goodwill's first building destroyed by fire

1930s: New home at 18th Avenue West and Superior Street, where furniture and apparel repair dominates daily work

1942: Goodwill a "key civilian defense unit" for the war effort by collecting scrap paper, rubber, rags and metal

1955: Duluth Goodwill hits first cumulative "million-dollar milestone"

1967: Duluth Sheltered Workshop starts providing manufacturing, subcontracting and recycling jobs to people with disabilities

1979: Goodwill merges with Duluth Shelter Workshop "to maximize their effectiveness and purchase a building without architectural limitations"

1980: Goodwill moves into former Goldfine's department store at 700 Garfield Ave., where it remains today

Late 1980s: Choremasters lawn care and janitorial services launched

2004: Mattress recycling program starts

2018: Retail sales reach $6.5 million across 15 thrift stores in the Northland. 408 people are directly employed and 179 are served through employment programs.

2019: Goodwill celebrates 100 years in Duluth