Owner Carol Robinson poses for a portrait at her Jasmine Street General Store in Laguna Beach. Jasmine Street General Store sells The Giving Keys, which hires people who are transitioning out of homelessness and trains them to create jewelry from repurposed keys. The Giving Keys is a Los Angeles-based company represented at retailers across the country. (KEVIN CHANG, Coastline Pilot / February 24, 2014)

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Carol Robinson had just put the necklaces on display when two customers walked in.

Their friend — the mother of a bride-to-be who'd been jilted a day before she was to walk down the altar — needed a pick-me-up.

Drawn to the words engraved on the keys hanging from silver and gold chains, the women reached for one that read "strength."

"[She] could sure use this," Robinson recalled them saying.

Such comments are frequent, according to the owner of Laguna Beach-based Jasmine Street General Store, whether people come in specifically looking for The Giving Keys or stumble across them.

The 2-month-old shop, half a block from Heisler Park, houses a little bit of everything — toys, cards, umbrellas and beach chairs. The necklaces are The Giving Keys' only products sold there.

Robinson has a soft spot for the old, repurposed keys. A plaque informs visitors about the Los Angeles-based company that employs people transitioning out of homelessness. They are the ones who stamp the keys with words including "faith," "dream," "love" and "fearless."

Wearers are encouraged to not only give their message-bearing item to someone who they believe needs the encouragement, but also to send the team at The Giving Keys their pay-it-forward stories.

It's a point of pride for Robinson that her mom-and-pop store sells several goods made by companies that donate portions of their proceeds to charity. What sets the concept of the keys apart, she finds, is that the making of the items gives people work.

"I like giving new life to something that's old," she remarked. "And I think the idea of it is really great, especially giving jobs to people that really need a break."


'Ugly, broke & hungry'

Singer-songwriter Caitlin Crosby, founder of The Giving Keys, was in New York in 2008 when inspiration struck. She discovered a used hotel room key and liked it so much that she began wearing it around her neck. Soon after, she was at a locksmith shop, where she came across some discarded keys and discovered that words could be etched on them.

After getting a few made, Crosby began giving them to friends as gifts. Judging by their response, she quickly realized that she was on to something and began selling them while on tour.

"They would sell out more than her CDs," said Brit Moore, the organization's managing director. "So Caitlin thought to herself, 'Maybe I should focus on this a little bit more.'"

A few months into setting up an online store, Crosby knew that she wanted the proceeds to go to charity, but she was yet to find a cause that was specific to The Giving Keys.

One evening, she walked onto Hollywood Boulevard after attending an event for Invisible Children — an organization that aims to bring awareness to the activities of the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa — and noticed a homeless couple, Rob and Cera, seated on a sidewalk under an umbrella. They were clutching a sign that said, "Ugly, broke & hungry." Crosby canceled her plans for the night and took them to dinner.

It was while chatting with them that she complimented Cera on her necklace, which it turned out was handmade. And that's when Crosby knew how the keys were going to give back to society.

The next day, Rob and Cera — after receiving all the necessary supplies — began engraving keys on streets and alleys where they camped. Earning one dollar per item, they were able to make enough money to move first into a hotel and then an apartment. Rob got his high school equivalency certificate and then moved to Seattle for college; Cera found a job at the San Diego Zoo.