Sarah Beley is Working Gear’s director and all-round super star. Sarah leads the organization, supported by a team of volunteers and Working Gear board members.
Earlier this year, Working Gear was showcased on CTV’s Holmes Family Effect, with Mike Holmes, his son Michael and daughter Sherry surprising Sarah and giving the shop an incredible transformation. We sat down with Sarah to find out what motivates her, how the show impacted Working Gear, and how the organization is continually evolving to the meet the needs of the community.
What brought you to Working Gear?
I started volunteering for Working Gear six years ago and soon realized there was a growing need for our services in the community. Feeling compelled to do more, I spent more time in the shop and ended up managing operations on a volunteer basis. At the start of 2021, I became Working Gear’s first employee, and am now able to do what I love full time.
People ask me what my motivation is: growing up in Alberta, I had a tough childhood. My father died when I was 9, my mother suffered from mental illness and my uncle disappeared in the DTES when I was a kid. My experiences gave me a unique lens into the trauma, pain, and helplessness of marginalized people in our society, and the negative impact this has on their mental health and economic prospects.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Thanks to the support of my extended family and the support of my local community, I ended up moving to Vancouver to study for a degree in Political Science at Simon Fraser University. I now feel a responsibility to advocate for people who weren’t so fortunate, and I’m able to do this through Working Gear.
What was Working Gear like before the show?
Back in 2019, like many other volunteers, I had a full-time job, so this was like my side gig. We were trying our best to support our clients, but it often felt overwhelming.
Demand for gear was outstripping supply: many of the boots we had were used and sometimes had holes in them. This wasn’t what our clients deserved.
We didn’t have the right equipment to run an orderly shop: our computers were old and the lack of washing machines meant I was taking laundry home on the bus.
The shop itself felt claustrophobic and institutional. It had a terrible layout, poor lighting, and no changing rooms. Clients had to try on clothes in the bathroom! It was the opposite of the welcoming, supportive environment we were aiming for.
How did it feel to be on the show?
When I was surprised by the Holmes family, it felt incredible. The downtown eastside has negative connotations, and the people here are often forgotten about. To have someone notice what we were doing, and want to help us, made us feel validated.
Working Gear now looks like a retail store you’d expect downtown! The space is open, bright, and welcoming. Clothing is merchandised, we have changing rooms, washer dryers, a new computer and printer for clients to print resumes. We even have a barber shop complete with barber’s pole!
It feels wonderful to have a calm, safe and loving space for our clients (and for me!). We break all these molds by delivering a service that’s different. Nothing has changed with how we approach Working Gear, except now the look fits.
What keeps you energized?
I love working in the DTES, helping clients, and partnering with referral agencies and other organizations in the community. There’s a lot of innovation here and many cool people doing cool things. It’s inspiring and revitalizing and I love that Working Gear is part of this ecosystem.
We’re continually evolving what Working Gear is to the community. We recognized that a growing number of people were looking for construction type work and so now that is our focus. Over the past year, we’ve doubled the number of clients and expanded services to include all gender identities and added a barber service.
Importantly, we’ve created a deinstitutionalized, safe community space. These are people who’ve made a choice to change their lives for the better. We’re one of the first places they turn to for support and many are teetering on the edge. It’s our job to give our clients a positive experience, cheer them on, and help them move forward to a positive future.