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Store Opens Doors to the American Dream

Wankel’s Hardware in Manhattan has a history of offering immigrants opportunities to achieve the American dream.

In the 1970s, the business, which opened in 1896, began pursuing prospective employees who needed help establishing new lives for themselves.

Katherine Wankel, current owner of the store, led the effort to find ways to employ ex-convicts, troubled teens and first-generation refugees.

“She has always felt social justice was extremely important, and my grandfather instilled that value in all of us, as well. I’m trying to live up to their great examples,” vice president Sean Wankel says. Katherine Wankel is his aunt.

Now, the store has become particularly known for offering jobs to new immigrants, Sean says.

The business has been working with resettlement organizations like the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Charities for decades.

“Both of these organizations give grants to help first-generation Americans come to the U.S. through the United Nations,” Sean says.

The organizations work with businesses, such as Wankel’s Hardware, to help refugees find job opportunities. Caseworkers prescreen potential job candidates, and are usually able to recommend people they think would fit best at Wankel’s Hardware, Sean says.

“We have built a strong relationship with the individuals at the organizations we source through,” he says. “We get an extra piece of the interview process, as they help us screen candidates that are a good fit for business.”

A Strong Team

Refugees who come to Wankel’s Hardware for job interviews get to see a world map, which has push pins stuck into countries across the world where current and former Wankel employees have come from, Sean says.

“Many even see a pin in their country already, so they can see that a path has been paved before them,” he says. “I hope it gives them a little comfort and they know it’s a safe place. Many people from all over the world have come through here, and they have gone on to lead happy and successful lives.”

The store has a strong team of employees from all walks of life, but refugees contribute beyond their hard work.

“The employees I’ve gotten to work with and know have shown me many great qualities, like extreme perseverance,” Sean says. “Working with many of our employees has brought me more perspective in my own life. Whether it’s a business issue or a personal problem, they keep me more level and it helps me understand any problem I face is not a life or death issue.”

Forging a Successful Path

Wankel’s family stays in touch with several past employees who were refugees. Many have been able to do more than get on their feet in the U.S., regaining certifications as doctors and lawyers.

A past employee went on to become a professor of sociology at Columbia University.

“Living in Vietnam as a kid, he would trudge his books along with him as he and his parents walked from tent camp to tent camp,” Sean says. “Now, he’s featured on CNN and is one of our biggest transformations.”

Others have built careers at Wankel’s Hardware.

“We’ve had employees who have left the store and come back to work in different capacities, one as a manager and one on the office staff,” he says. “Refugees are just other folks like you and I, but they just need a little bit of help. They are largely some of the most positive and hard working people I know.”

About Renee Changnon

Renee Changnon is the retail outreach coordinator for NRHA. She meets with retailers in their stores and at industry events and introduces them to the services NRHA provides. Renee previously worked as a member of the NRHA communications team. She earned a degree in visual journalism from Illinois State University, where she served as the features editor for the school newspaper. After college, she implemented marketing and promotions initiatives at Jimmy John’s franchise locations across the country. She enjoys exploring books with her book club, Netflix marathons and hosting goat yoga at her apartment complex. Renee Changnon 317-275-9442 rchangnon@nrha.org

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