Mott Haven co-op preaches gospel of reuse

PHOTO BY VISHAL PERSAUD

ReBuilder’s Source offers new life to building materials and ex-prisoners

Sounds of power sanders filled the warehouse of ReBuilder’s Source on Timpson Place on a recent afternoon. They didn’t buzz, they boomed. Six people were at work, two or three times the usual staff at the worker-owned cooperative.

ReBuilder’s Source didn’t hire more workers. It was hosting a weeklong training program in cooperation with the Osborne Association – a non-profit that provides job training for people who were once in prison.

“They will definitely leave here knowing more than when they came in, and it’s not just frivolous: it’s stuff that can actually be carried forward,” said Joel Frank, a partner in ReBuilder’s Source, a kind of discount Home Depot that collects furniture, fixtures, doors, windows and other building material that would otherwise be discarded to sell at a steep discount to contractors and home improvement do-it-yourselfers.

The Mott Haven-based business is one of many in the Bronx that may benefit from a $4 million federal stimulus grant to the Consortium for Worker Education. The students enrolled in the Osborne Association’s Green Career Center also received construction training from Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 10 and the Association for Energy Affordability.

“I hope to take some of these skills to enhance the other positive skills that I’ve gotten,” said Lawrence Harris, 41, who was caught with five and a half ounces of cocaine and faced 62 years to life in prison, but is now on work release and hoping to get his life back on track.

At ReBuilder’s Source, the students learned how to take apart furniture and then use various tools to sand the pieces to a smooth and even surface. They learned the step-by-step sanding process to refurbish benches that would otherwise have ended up in a waste transfer station or buried in a landfill. They also learned more about other tools and products used to refurbish items.

Most of ReBuilder’s stock comes from construction and demolition sites. When the co-op gets a call from a building firm, Frank and his co-workers head over to pick up pieces of wood, old cabinets and doors, toilets and sinks or whatever is salvageable. Workers refurbish each piece to make it as close to a new item as possible before offering it for sale.

In addition to practical skills, ReBuilder’s training program introduces the students to the entrepreneurial side of the business.

Editor’s note

In late May, ReBuilders Source announced that it is closing its doors.

“Over the past two years we’ve made renovations affordable for homeowners and small businesses in our community and we’ve kept perfectly good building materials out of landfills and incinerators, doing our part for the planet,” the co-op said in a statement.

“We know how desperately this city needs reuse stores for building materials. And we deeply believe that there is a place for ReBuilders Source in the future. Unfortunately, it is no longer financially feasible for us to continue.”

Omar Freilla, the founder of ReBuilders parent organization Greenworker Cooperatives, posted a statement on his Facebook page promising to continue his organization’s efforts to link jobs and improving the environment.

“It hurts to have to share this news from ReBuilders Source,” he wrote. “It’s not the kind of news we look forward to. But it is the kind of news we have to deal with, especially in this economic climate.

“ReBuilders Source is the first worker co-op we launched. And it’s been an incredible learning experience. It takes a lot to blaze a trail–a lot of energy, time, and support, a lot of falling down, and a lot of getting back up. In the face of bailouts for billionaires, subsidies for dirty industries, and diminished rights of workers, we’re committed to making another world possible…and to getting back up.”

“You have an opportunity to work with your hands, and then we give you a little bit of exposure as to what it would be like if you wanted to create a business out of what you’re building with your hands,” said Janco Adamaj, another partner in the worker cooperative who teaches the business portion of the program.

In a rented computer lab near the cooperative’s warehouse, Adamaj taught the students some of the basic skills they need to run a business like ReBuilder’s, things like how to post listings of items they’ve made or refurbished on eBay and Craigslist and how to create a profit and loss statement for a business.

“I’m looking for a career; I’m not looking for a job. I’m looking for a career so I can take care of my family and live a civilian life” said Kevin Smiley, 41, who committed a crime seven years ago and is now trying to rebuild his life.

The Osborne Association created a pilot project with ReBuilder’s Source, testing it with just one participant, and concluding that it was successful. While making buildings energy-efficient has become the mainstay of the green-job marketplace, the worker-owned cooperative offers refurbishing as another alternative. The Osborne Association felt t these additional skills would help their students when it came time to look for employment.

“They get to be in a real work environment,” said Jessica Rooks, director of the Green Career Center at the Osborne Association. They also get to see some of the things they’ve learned in the classroom in an actual small green business.

“We hope that we’ll stay in a relationship where we’ll be able to explore new possibilities in addition to the work we started,” said Rooks.

In trying to breathe life into a young industry in the South Bronx, training programs like the one at Osborne are also aiming to give a second life to men and women who once hit rock bottom, like Kevin Smiley.

“The only person that’s going to stop me from benefiting is me,” said Smiley.

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