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Charlie Mazzilli’s three kids were constantly outgrowing soccer cleats and softball bats, creating two issues: what to do with the old equipment, and how to afford replacements?
Mazzilli, whose 26-year-old son, Charlie Jr., attends The Arc of Union County work center in Cranford, did some research and ultimately pitched his idea to Arc executives: open a retail store featuring used sports equipment. Better still, hire Arc members to staff the store and prep all merchandise for sale.
“I used to coach softball, basketball and soccer,’’ said Mazzilli, a member of the Arc Board of Directors. “I had all this stuff accumulated, and it was in good shape. I didn’t want to throw it away, especially because I know how expensive it is to try a new sport. I also love the work centers and wanted to keep our kids there busy. I realized they could clean the equipment that was donated, be productive and make some money.”
From that seed of an idea grew Green Sports NJ, a Cranford store that owes quite a bit of its success to the Entrepreneurial Training Initiative attended last winter by The Arc of Union County Executive Director Frank X. Caragher.
“We learned so much from the ETI program,” Caragher said. “There was such a diversity of people with different business ideas. They gave me great insight into what we needed to be successful, such as a strong business plan and credible business practices.”
Caragher took the lessons learned from his ETI classes back to Arc staff who would be involved with the store. “Frank came back after each session with so much great information," said Assistant Executive Director Lynn Lott. “We really were able to maximize the investment of time, money and effort that Frank put into the ETI program.”
Six Arc members, who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, have been trained to work in the store, where they do everything from clean windows and organize merchandise to assist customers and process credit card purchases. “We are hoping to move some people out of the store and into other jobs in the community so we can create more job openings. It will be an ongoing process,” Lott said.
Items sold in the store come largely from donations, including collections at schools and community centers, so customers know they are being good stewards of the environment while supporting a charitable organization.
“That was another idea we got from UCEDC: having something that appeals to people so they can feel good about shopping here,” Lott said.
Arc representatives also learned about financing options, including UCEDC short-term loans. Arc ultimately received a U.S. Department of Labor grant that covered start-up costs, but the organization might need to pursue a UCEDC loan for future costs, Caragher said. “The grant is done at the end of September, and we do not have enough income yet to be self-sustaining,” Lott said. “This is something the ETI program helped with, planning ahead. So we’re very cognizant now of where we are, where we are going and how much more we’re going to need.”
ETI recommended the right type of bank account to keep store finances separate from other Arc monies, and Caragher learned how to use social media and a website to drive interest in the store. The website is now being tweaked to allow online purchases soon.
When it came to finding the right location, the ETI program helped Caragher consider pros and cons for the corner the Arc ultimately selected. “They got us thinking about our marketplace,” Caragher said. “We are located in a busy pedestrian area so we get a lot of traffic, but there’s no parking. We had to decide if that would be O.K., so we looked into it and realized it would be O.K. It was just another thing ETI got us to think about.”
For more information on Green Sports NJ, visit www.greensportsnj.org.