“My adoptive parents didn’t want to live with me anymore. I couldn’t be perfect, so they essentially gave me back,” said Cole Clarke. Recounting a story like his could bring a different person to tears, but Clarke keeps a straight back and a strong voice as he focuses on the progress he has made since joining the Goodwill organization.
“I love working at Goodwill and I don’t think I could get this joy anywhere else,” said the 19-year-old donation attendant at Goodwill’s Fountain Square retail location. Clarke said he is now the opposite of the emotionally broken boy, forced to live in a group home after his adoptive parents gave up their parental responsibility. “I feel like I’m part of a family now,” he said.
Clarke was born in Russia and grew up in an orphanage. At the age of two, an American couple from Virginia adopted him and brought him to the U.S. “For some reason, I didn’t live up to their expectations,” said Clarke. When the couple adopted another Russian child, Clarke said he was immediately put outside the family unit. “They treated my adoptive sister better and acted like they didn’t want me anymore,” he said.
His family dynamic turned toxic, in his words, which resulted in him going to the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls (VHBG) at the age of 15.
“I met Cole when he came to the group home for his initial assessment,” said John Dougherty. Dougherty is Goodwill’s vice president of community workforce, but at the time, he was VHBG’s chief administrative officer. “I could quickly tell that Cole was a lost kid. He was quirky and misunderstood, and he told me he didn’t live up to the dreams of his adoptive parents, who wanted him to be someone else.” said Dougherty. “Cole left an impression on me; he’s one of those kids you never forget,” he said.
Fast forward two years later when Dougherty started working at Goodwill and visited the Fountain Square store on Broad Street in Richmond. “I had some clothes my kids grew out of bagged up in the car, and I just randomly picked a nearby Goodwill store. When I drove up to the donation entrance, someone yelled, ‘Hey Mr. John!’ I turned around and saw it was Cole. I was stunned; it was the first time I’d seen him since the group home,” said Dougherty.
Clarke said he could not believe his chance reconnection with Dougherty. “I instantly told Mr. John about the good things that had happened to me since getting a job at Goodwill,” said Clarke.
When Clarke turned 16, he started applying for jobs to spend time outside the group home. One of the jobs was a part-time position at Southern States, which appealed to Clarke’s love of the outdoors. “I found another part-time job online, working at Goodwill as a donation attendant. I liked that its description included its mission to help people,” he recalled.
Clarke said working at Goodwill taught him values he carries every day: teamwork, accountability, hard work and fun. “I like lifting the heavy items and loading the trucks with donations. I get to be outside and enjoy the weather,” he said.
Dougherty remembers the hope in Clarke’s face and confidence in his voice during their reconnection, as Clarke listed the ways his life had changed by working at Goodwill. “This kid had undergone a complete life transformation. I’m not embellishing; Cole was a new person. He was thrilled about his job and the goals he set for himself,” said Dougherty.
“For me, that drove home the reason why we do what we do at Goodwill – we are truly changing peoples’ lives and helping them discover their self-worth. Cole was exposed to our organization’s culture and mission of helping people with challenges to work, lifting them up and finding a pathway to success,” said Dougherty.
Clarke also found a pathway to education, discovering he wanted to go to college. He is now a student at Reynolds Community College. “I like trying new things, so I started studying horticulture,” he said. His book work turned into yardwork when he came up with the idea to start a garden. “I found an empty space on campus and made 30 raised beds for crops. I started planting strawberries, which turned out nicely,” he remembered.
From there, Clarke started to plant vegetables, including cucumbers, squash and tomatoes. “I wanted something that was my own. I learned how to take care of the crops and which seeds to plant during different seasons. It made me realize what I’m capable of,” he said.
Dougherty says Clarke’s story is a true representation of Goodwill’s mission. “The people we serve are looking for a chance. Many times, we are repairing lives through the power of work. It gives people purpose and value. But, it’s not done overnight. Sometimes, it can take years for a person to fully experience the impact we make on their lives, and in Cole’s case, the impact can last a lifetime,” said Dougherty.
Clarke continues to learn new skills, including how to grow ghost peppers for his garden’s next season. He credits his life’s 180-degree turn to Goodwill and the opportunity to find himself through work. “I’ve learned no matter how negative your situation is, you can turn it around if you have the right chance. Goodwill gave me that chance. After everything I’ve been through, I can honestly look back and say, ‘I’m okay.’”