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Landry Rhodes is a big guy with a generous smile who says he was at a crossroads in his life when he met the people who would help him move in a positive direction.

“I started something and I completed it,” he said, “because I had wonderful people who helped me.” I’m a believer in measuring and testing social-service efforts to make sure they deliver, but I also know some things that can’t be easily measured matter too, like wonderful people.

I met Rhodes last Thursday at Goodwill’s new headquarters at South Dearborn Street and Rainier Avenue South in Seattle, where he was attending a graduation ceremony for people who’d completed several of the organization’s programs.

He was there because he works with young Goodwill students, but a year ago he was the person in need of mentoring.

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Rhodes, 25, was raised by his godmother in Seattle’s Central Area because his parents were drug addicts. He dropped out of high school and he’d just given up on a low-paying, mind-numbing job when he walked past Goodwill, and remembered his godmother telling him about it before she died the year before. He dropped in to ask if they knew where he could get his GED.

He didn’t know Goodwill has GED preparation classes. Maybe you didn’t either, but Goodwill recycles more than the stuff that accumulates in your basement. Sometimes it helps put people back in the game.

Maybe, like me, you occasionally decide to shed some of what you’ve accumulated — clothes that don’t fit quite right, a VHS recorder, books that have overflowed your shelf space — and you drop them off at Goodwill. Maybe you stop in while you’re there and spot something you know you can put to good use, if you just think about the possibilities for a moment.

And you know that Goodwill uses the money it makes to train the cashiers and customer-service people who help you out while you’re there, which makes you feel good about visits to the store.

Goodwill is unusual in that it is a largely self-sufficient social-service enterprise. Twenty-three stores in the area provide about $20 million a year to fund training and adult-education programs at 10 locations. Graduates find work at companies all over the region — Nordstrom Rack, UPS, Lowe’s and more.

Rhodes earned his GED, and he also participated in a new endeavor, a 3-year-old partnership between Goodwill and the Seattle Parks Department called the Youth Green Corps Program.

Young adults spend nine months getting on-the-job training, work experience and classroom time. Rhodes cleared blackberry bushes and learned Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, among other skills. And he learned “I don’t like office work,” he said. “I’m just an outdoors person.”

Next fall he’ll start the culinary-arts program at Seattle Central, with plans to have his own food truck some day. “Hang around positive people and it falls on you,” Rhodes said. “You become positive, too.” The people around us have a powerful impact on our lives.

Rhodes said that being on this new path helped him work some things out with his father. He’s now his father’s caregiver. He said he also learned by watching his mentors that you don’t just take, because giving back is important, too.

One of the students he mentored is Raymond Banh, 18. Banh’s mother nudged him to join the youth program after she’d participated in classes at Goodwill. She’s more typical of the students, a woman and an immigrant looking to find work with a decent salary.

Banh just finished the Youth Year-Round Program, in which he learned about different jobs and how various businesses operate. And now he’s becoming a youth program leader himself.

Banh is a Garfield High graduate who’ll attend the UW Bothell in the fall. His life has been very different from his friends’, and he said one of the things he appreciates about Goodwill is that it brings together a wide spectrum of people he wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise. His experience will be useful social capital in the future.

After our talk, Banh looked me in the eye, thanked me for speaking with him and firmly shook my hand. I asked if he’d learned that in the program and he said yes, and the big smile, too.

That impressed me more than Goodwill’s data on high job-placement rates and good pay levels.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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