If you ever volunteered or visited at Salt & Light during the years we were an emergency food pantry, you would have found many people with various types of disabilities standing in line for food. This is a reflection of the face of America’s poor. Only around 30% of the people living in poverty in our country are considered able-bodied, fully employable people who are searching for work. The other 70%, while it also includes children, the elderly, and others, is comprised of a significant number of people who are considered disabled and unable to be employed.
In the United States, people who have a documented disability can qualify for permanent disability benefits and receive an income from government support systems. But the disability system, like many others, has drawbacks. The income received is usually barely sufficient for survival, and then only when used in combination with other benefit programs. And if recipients find a way to bring in any additional household income, benefits are cut in response, resulting in no net financial gain—in fact, people often experience a significant financial loss in this situation, since not only disability income can be cut, but other benefits the person was receiving will be decreased as well as a result of any new income.
When we began our system of member credit at Salt & Light in 2014, the first explanation of our system of volunteering to prospective members was often met with the answer, “Oh, I can’t do anything—I’m on disability!” I lost count of the number of times we heard the phrase “I can’t do anything”, almost always said with genuine fear and distress. The fear created by these systems is obvious and understandable, when people are confronted with the thought of doing anything that could jeopardize their survival, or cut a family off from their only systems of support. The other, less obvious effect is the communication of the message that disability means you are not able to do anything, especially not anything that will make a meaningful contribution, either to change your own situation, or to benefit others.
Now that we are no longer operating as an emergency relief organization but instead are a development-oriented community model, one of the main ideas underlying what we do is that every human being has skills, talents, gifts, and abilities given to them by God. There are no exceptions—disability is not a dis-qualifier. In other words, every human, no matter their age or ability, has some important contribution to make to the world, and everyone’s contribution is equally needed and equally valuable. As a result, there is a place for everyone at Salt & Light.
For our members, volunteering here earns store credit that supplements their household income without threatening their systems of support, so we can allow people to help themselves and their families without fear. But even more importantly, we are putting the lie to the message that any disability makes a person incapable of contributing meaningfully to the world. We are often thanked for the opportunity to earn the credit that helps many families move from surviving to thriving, but most often, we are thanked for the opportunity to work. Among our members and volunteers, you will find people with wheelchairs and walkers, oxygen tanks, canes, hearing aids, and a variety of other assistive devices. Our Salt & Light family includes those who are recovering from stroke or head injury, who live with autism, blindness, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and the list goes on, with many other physical, developmental, and cognitive delays and disorders. These are the people who run our stores every day. Alongside their friends, neighbors and community members, they bag groceries, stock shelves, sort donations, answer phones, manage data, greet customers, and welcome donors. We could not operate a single day without their efforts. No one’s work is more important or more valuable than another’s. Each person’s unique gifts, smile, struggle, heart, are what come together to create the place that makes our work possible. We would not be Salt & Light without each one of them.
So why does this matter to you as a customer in our stores, or a donor in our drive-thrus? There are two reasons. The first is that the expectations for what you encounter in our stores should be a little different than those in other retail settings. As you drop off your donations or browse through the clothing racks, you’ll notice that our team is made up of this beautiful, wide, diverse array of people. As a result, our environment is saturated with grace, because sometimes we need it. Sometimes we operate at a slower pace; sometimes our social interactions are a little awkward; sometimes we need a little help. But also, all the time, we are grateful. We are appreciative. We are happy to be here. This grace is what makes our stores a happy place. In our buildings, you’ll find more patience, more weirdness, more acceptance, and more joy.
The truth is, everyone sometimes moves a little more slowly. Everyone has bad days, limitations, weaknesses, quirks. Everyone needs help. And that’s the second reason why all this is important for you. The grace that is present for our volunteers and members is available to everyone, and that means you too—there are no exceptions. The contribution you make with your presence is equally valuable, equally needed; you will be equally accepted and equally loved. There is a place for everyone at Salt & Light.