When Deseret Industries began in 1938, the United States was in a challenging time on the heels of the Great Depression. It was established in an “effort to provide opportunities for individuals to become self-sustaining,” according to a letter signed by the First Presidency and Presiding Bishopric dated Aug. 11, 1938.
The goals were to serve those in need, reduce waste, provide employment and provide low-cost items.
From the very beginning, workers were urged to improve their skills so they could move into regular employment and become self-reliant.
“And over all these years, we have continued to provide opportunities for work and work training,” said Megan Burt, director of Deseret Industries and Employment Services. “We still use donated items from the community to create the training environment. We also still provide clothing and household items for those in need through bishops’ orders and community grants.”
From the first store at 342 W. 200 South in Salt Lake City, Deseret Industries — also known by the initialism DI — now has 46 stores in eight states in the U.S.: Utah, California, Arizona, Idaho, Washington, Nevada, Oregon and Texas.
Associates get personalized job coaching, career development counseling, English classes and paid training courses. Associates can get financial help with other education and training opportunities, too — and can receive training in fields including security, medical, dental assisting, education, management, manufacturing, production and skilled trades.
“We are always trying to find new ways to adapt and still make it a meaningful work training experience,” Burt said in a blog post commemorating the 85th anniversary.
Deseret Industries is “all about the one,” explained Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, when he dedicated the Saratoga Springs, Utah, store in September 2022.
“Every individual who comes and needs help, whether for a food order or job assistance, everyone will receive individual assistance,” Bishop Waddell said.
Finding new treasures through thrifting
Deseret Industries officially opened Aug. 12, 1938. After collection drives in Salt Lake City in August, the first retail sales were made on Sept. 1.
Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles urged Church members to donate goods to the store in a September 1938 editorial in the Improvement Era magazine.
“Deseret Industries will serve a wholesome moral as well as economic purpose in securing a fuller service of our property,” he wrote.
When Elder Widstoe visited the plant to see how it was progressing, he laid down his hat on one of the store’s tables while he took a tour.
When he returned, he found that the hat had been sold.
Today, many shoppers experience the thrill of the hunt as they sort through the shelves. Loyal shoppers post their finds on social media and tag the Deseret Industries accounts. When Burt visits a store, she often goes to the book section first. She also loves going to the yard area.
“It’s a little hidden gem — you can find some really cool things there,” she said.
Donations spur jobs training
In its first week of operation in 1938, Deseret Industries received 179 calls from people wanting to know where and when to donate. Ever since then, shoppers and donors have been an important part of the store. Purchases and donations make it possible for DI to provide job training and humanitarian aid.
When donations are dropped off, associates help unload and organize the items, then they sort by category and quality, price the merchandise and display it on the sales floor. Associates conduct transactions at the registers as well. Each of these steps teaches crucial skills.
Burt said as soon as a store receives a donated item, the associates are looking for all the possible ways to divert it away from the landfill. Every item gets a chance on the sales floor.
Products that don’t sell are taken to the Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake, which has another work training program. There, associates find items that can be used for humanitarian relief. Clothing and shoes are reserved to send to those in need in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. What doesn’t go for humanitarian efforts gets sorted or broken down to be recycled.
“Very little of what gets donated goes to waste. Most of it is either sold or recycled,” Burt said.
Humanitarian relief efforts
Each Deseret Industries store is also a fulfillment center for bishops’ orders. These are orders from a local bishop for a family or individual in need allowing them to pick up new goods or gently used items from DI for free.
DI offers grants to local nonprofit organizations such as women’s shelters and refugee resettlement agencies to acquire free goods for use in their areas. Groups are given vouchers that can be used by the people they serve — selecting items such as clothing, bedding or furniture.
In the early days, DI had a sewing department and a reupholstery department. The employees at the time would mend or restore items to a state where they could be sold. DI even operated a rug factory, which used donated wool sweaters to produce rugs and blankets.
Today, Deseret Manufacturing in Salt Lake City makes new mattresses and wood furniture to sell in DI stores. The manufacturing of those products is also a training opportunity for associates to learn manufacturing skills and receive one-on-one job coaching.
The future of DI
On the 50th anniversary in 1988, the director of Deseret Industries, Earl Matheson, told the Church’s Ensign magazine, “Deseret Industries — past, present, and future — is a people program. It exists to help people to help themselves, and there is still much to do.”
Burt said in the future, DI hopes to help more people first and foremost, “and we hope to continue to get better at helping them.”
She would love to look at other places where there might be enough Church membership, community support and associates to make other kinds of operations successful. They are also considering ways to provide work training in different locations.
“We are always asking, ‘Are there other options where we can provide the training that helps people overcome barriers to employment?’”
She thanked all those who donate their items to Deseret Industries stores and thanked the shoppers for understanding the Deseret Industries mission.
“We are just so grateful that you are willing to be a part of it.”