When Karen Lynch and her husband, Dan, went to the School of the Holy Childhood for a mass being held for his mother, they knew nothing about the school or what went on there. They left changed.
"We went in there for the first time and it just captured us," Karen Lynch says. "The kids were greeting us and giving us hugs, and we could just see on their faces that they're beautiful kids there, sweet and honest. Everything was just so welcoming."
The non-denominational, non-profit agency provides education and service to children and young adults with developmental disabilities. It also teaches job skills. Older students work in on-site settings making pies and woodworking.
During their visit, the Lynches took a tour of the facility and saw the students' work settings. They found out that the school did not have a retail store of its own to sell its products. As a way to help, they decided to open one themselves to create a wider market for the products and return the profit to the school.
The Lynches last year opened the Generosity Store, a non-profit near the intersection of Goodman Street and Park Avenue. Customers can buy the school's locally famous pies and gifts. Karen Lynch, then the associate director for advancement at Golisano Children's Hospital, looked at the store as a sort of working donation.
"We thought about making a onetime gift to School of the Holy Childhood and having a big impact, but this is so much more than just a gift," she says. "The store is a continuous way to give back and get recognition for the school."
The Generosity Store's mission is as much to spread the word about School of the Holy Childhood as it is to sell products. The store uses images of the school's children in its advertisements, and during the holidays last year Lamar Advertising Co. donated 16 billboards to direct people to the shop.
Once their customers are inside the store, Lynch and the staff try to get them better acquainted with the school's mission and the students and adults involved.
"When people come in we ask if they're familiar with the school," she says. "The biggest thing is raising awareness of School of the Holy Childhood. We want people to get interested, and ultimately take tours and find connections the way we did."
Donna Dedee, the school's CEO, says the partnership has helped create new audiences for the school's products and reach a wider constituency that it had on its own. For years the school had looked into opening a retail setting, but it was not until the Lynches presented their idea that it became viable, she adds.
"They've opened up a lot of opportunities that we might not have had otherwise," Dedee says.
The store also carries products from Golisano Children's Hospital and Daystar for Medically Fragile Infants Inc., but the focus is on helping the school and its mission, Lynch says. Students ages 16 to 20 work in the store, delivering products and working with customers as part of a work internship program the school offers.
"It's a real learning experience for them," she says. "The feedback we get from School of the Holy Childhood is that the ones who work here see their social skills and confidence level really improve. They can really take pride in their work and the products they're making."
A staff of mostly volunteers keeps the store running, she says. The store manager and two other part-timers are employees, but the rest are volunteers.
The Generosity Store has been very popular in its first year, Lynch says, and at its one-year anniversary cut checks of $75,000 for its partner organizations. Its location at the corner of Goodman Street and Park Avenue has brought a lot of walk-in traffic, she adds.
Partners also had a hand in the growth. Lynch called on her experience running events for Golisano Children's Hospital and the public relations contacts she made throughout her career when opening the store.
"We reached out to everyone we could think of to get promotions around it and pulled on the contacts we'd made in networking," she says. "The Golisano Children's Hospital has more than 100,000 patients, so they alone being able to tell constituents about the Generosity Store and putting it in their newsletter and Facebook and Twitter helped a great deal."
School of the Holy Childhood also has sent customers the store's way, promoting it on the school's website and in communications with parents. The store's board has representatives from all three partner organizations.
After initially signing a three-year lease, Lynch says she intended to make an assessment at the end of the second year to see if the store needed to expand or move to a new location. But after such a strong first year, she already is thinking about ways the store will grow.
"One of the apartments upstairs became available, so we're thinking of moving our offices there and expanding the retail area of the store," she says. "At the same time we're also looking at a second location. Those are both viable options for us right now."
An expansion for the Generosity Store also would mean more opportunities for students and adults working at School of the Holy Childhood, Dedee says. Though many of them get work experience through the woodworking shop and bakery, any opportunity to move beyond the school's sheltered setting and into real-world experiences will help more of them move toward meaningful employment and more fulfilled lives, she says.
The entrepreneurial spirit and marketing skill the Lynches have brought with the store also have rubbed off on the school's leaders, who now are thinking of new and different ways to expand what they do, Dedee adds.
"They brought a way of thinking to us that is pretty inspirational," she says. "It got us thinking of different ways to do things and made us realize the potential we have to serve the people who are in programs here."
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