Local thrift store volunteers in vocational program have a 1st Rate experience

Brian Puffer (left), a Chapel Haven West resident, and Hallah Karaman, store manager at 1st Rate 2nd Hand Thrift Store, share a laugh during a shift at the charitable secondhand shop. (David J. Del Grande/AJP)

Brian Puffer says his volunteer work has made Tucson feel more like home, and his new life here is starting to bloom. Puffer, 19, grew up in Tempe, Ariz., and moved to Tucson after enrolling in a two-year residential program at Chapel Haven West, a school and transitional home that provides support, educational classes and vocational training for young adults with developmental disabilities.

For the last three months, Puffer has worked at 1st Rate 2nd Hand Thrift Store, a nonprofit secondhand store partnered with more than 25 local Jewish organizations.

All of 1st Rate’s proceeds fund its local partners, and people can contribute by donating items, working as a volunteer or simply patronizing the store.

After completing a year of vocational classes, Puffer began his volunteer position at the local shop. He worked for a few retailers in Tempe and securing a full-time position in customer service is his ultimate goal, Puffer explains, so joining the team at 1st Rate was a good match.

“And I chose to work here because Chapel Haven West has a good relationship with the store here, and the people here are nice and friendly,” says Puffer. “It’s a good job to have.”

Chapel Haven’s core curriculum is based on four components: competent communication skills; self-determination, which includes self-awareness training to determine personal strengths, weaknesses and emotional needs; independent living skills such as grocery shopping and maintaining a bank account; and general education classes as well as vocational training.

On his first day at work, Puffer was a little apprehensive. “I was excited at the same time,” he says, “because I knew I would have co-workers and a job coach that would help through everything I needed.”

He enjoys helping customers and receiving oddball donations makes work fun, says Puffer. With a laugh he remembers an old typewriter being donated, some wine bottles and a beat-up scuba mask. He could put the scuba mask to good use, he says. Puffer earned his diving certificate five years ago and plans on applying for work at Tucson’s three scuba retailers.

Working alongside store manager Hallah Karaman has been especially helpful and she’s a good person to be around on every level, he says. “She’s funny, and she knows how to make you smile.”

He also volunteers at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System and he will continue working there until next March. Then Puffer will search for full-time employment until he graduates in June.

Being a resident at Chapel Haven has affected Puffer in many ways, he says. The program made him more independent and excited about the future.

“And I think Chapel Haven has helped a lot of people who have autism,” says Puffer. “They can help people who are trying to find a job, teach them the aspects of what is recommended to get a job and what is expected of you at your job site.”

The organization aims to place its residents in jobs that match their long-term career goals and will also improve their professional skills-set, says Samantha Sharman, vocation coordinator at Chapel Haven West.

“And our hope is by the time they graduate in June, that they are graduating with a paying job,” Sharman says.

Sharman says seeing students learn valuable workforce skills then successfully implement those skills is indescribably rewarding. The majority of Chapel Haven graduates secured a job last year, and Sharman says “that’s definitely a fantastic feeling. I absolutely love this job.”

The best part is hearing parents talk about how their children have grown into strong, independent young adults, she says.

“And so many of our students go on to be so tremendously successful,” she says.

Classes are held at the Chapel Haven West campus and the University of Arizona’s Speech Language and Hearing Sciences department. Most important, the vocational services are offered to any student enrolled at Chapel Haven, Sharman says.

Employment opportunities for young adults with autism spectrum disorder are pretty rare, she says, so having mainstay partners like 1st Rate are invaluable.

“When we have somebody like Hallah, who is willing to take the time to learn and educate herself about our population, talk to Chapel Haven and develop a plan for our students — it’s phenomenal,” Sharman says. “And our students are so successful.”

Karaman, store manager at 1st Rate, says the students from Chapel Haven are a joy to work with.

“I wish more people were as kind as these students are,” says Karaman.

When the organizations partnered about three years ago, Chapel Haven trained 1st Rate employees on how to work best with people living with autism spectrum disorder.

“I had no idea that this would be an integral part of what I do here on a week to week basis, but it is truly one of the most enjoyable parts of the week,” Karaman says. “And I’m super blessed that I’ve been provided with that opportunity.”

Karaman wells up when she recalls some of the outstanding students from Chapel Haven. Watching students come out of their shell and grow into confident employees is one of the best gifts, Karaman says.

“It feels really good,” she says, “there’s no other term to describe it.”