Thursday, March 22, 2018

Fresh Starts Begin with Grace

One of Fresh Start's original furniture offerings, a hand painted  garden bench.

As I walked in with Pastor Rick Kremer to tour Asylum Hill's unique non-profit furniture making business, Waseem was feeding a board into a planer, Ron was putting the finishing touches on a cabinet, and two volunteers were crafting tables and lamps. It's a typical busy morning scene on Fresh Start Pallet Products LLC's shop floor. Discarded pallets and distressed furniture are recycled into "attractive, sturdy, and affordable furnishings for home and garden." Fresh Start's mission is to offer meaningful jobs and job training, along with essential life skills to people -- typically unemployed, often homeless, sometimes with severe health or addiction issues -- seeking a way back to reclaim their dignity and self-esteem, all toward becoming productive members of society. Reclamation and renewal are what Fresh Start is all about.

Waseem working at the planer.

Ron putting finishing touches on a cabinet.

In the Beginning ...

Launched three years ago as a mission-based enterprise, the idea for Fresh Start germinated when artist and community outreach organizer Louisa Barton-Duguay thought that the idle, but fertile, lawn of Hartford's Grace Lutheran Church would be a comforting place for people, especially the neighborhood's homeless seeking a respite from the street, to sit and chat, or simply relax in a moment of quiet solitude. Louisa, Grace's artist-in-residence, thought a garden with simple benches should be the first "seeds" planted. Her vision sparked a spiritual call to action. Lee Whittemore, a retired Hartford Master carpenter, heard it and took the next step with Louisa. At her request, Lee volunteered to build the benches.

Together, as they surveyed the proposed garden location, Louisa and Lee spotted a pile of discarded pallets piled near a recently renovated apartment building across the street. Whittemore quickly rescued them from a fate destined for the the landfill. It was free lumber. As he began constructing basic benches and chairs with the salvaged pieces, more surprises were in the offing.

Whittemore's work attracted the attention of homeless men who had come to Grace for its weekly Friday Gatherings, a free dinner with all the trimmings. They asked if they could help. Instantly, Whittemore had eager assistants. As it came to life, Grace's new garden, with its colorful pallet furniture, drew broad community praise encouraging others to support the effort.

Recently called to Grace's ministry at that point, and moved by the neighborhood's "stories of hungry people with little hope, and many lost dreams," Pastor Rick often wondered about how it came to be that Louisa's wonderful idea, a pile of discarded pallets, and Lee's talents all converged at the right moment to initiate a program destined to become a new church mission. Divine inspiration? Pastor Rick believes so, which led him to ask Louisa and Lee a simple question, "Did you ever think about creating a business?" Without skipping a beat, conversations about starting a business began in earnest. That's when David Eberly, a pianist of note, unknowingly took the baton to orchestrate the next steps.

A Musician Plays the Next Verse 

After overhearing conversations concerning the church's financial challenges, Eberly, blind from birth, called Pastor Rick suggesting they meet with Phil Rockwell and Pete Mobilia, two retirees formerly involved in development and public relations at Asylum Hill's St. Francis Hospital. He thought they might have ideas that could help get Grace on a more stable financial footing.

Eberly spoke with Rockwell and Mobilia, and they set a meeting at Hamilton Heights, the senior living facility Eberly and Mobilia call home. In the meeting Pastor Rick outlined several issues affecting church finances, which generated several comments, but nothing revelatory. However, as a last minute thought when wrapping up his talk, Pastor Rick mentioned the church's latest idea for a neighborhood mission: "building furniture out of used shipping pallets, and in that way inviting people to a new start, a second chance." Another moment of divine inspiration struck. The idea instantly captured the imagination of Rockwell and Mobilia. Taking root strong and deep, the idea ultimately blossomed into what it is today, Fresh Start Pallet Products LLC, a social enterprise with a mission to provide "employment and training opportunities for economically disadvantaged area residents."

Fully on board, Rockwell and Mobilia recommended marketing and public relations ideas to advance the cause. They also knew other people who would leap at the chance to help. The small group soon grew larger. Many volunteers stepped forward to lend a hand. From the very beginning they reached for help from other organizations serving the same population. Discussions with neighboring organizations such as St. Francis Hospital, Chrysalis Center, and Catholic Family Services were encouraging. With enthusiasm running high, a small working team quickly gelled. Its first order of business was funding -- securing enough money to launch the enterprise on a path to succeed. A fundraiser proved just the ticket.

In June 2015 the pallet project team sponsored a night of music hosted by Hamilton Heights. It featured The Great American Songbook with Eberly on the keyboard accompanied by the vocals of Bob Lally, a project advocate and partner at Federman, Lally & Remis LLC. Nearly 100 people attended the concert, which also exhibited recently completed pallet furniture products. Netting more than $23,000, it raised enough money to get the business underway in earnest, and it attracted more advocates from which a vital network of relationships grew. Helping hands quickly multiplied, and a diverse and talented team -- a working committee -- was built that could turn an idea into reality.

With the engine to drive the business firmly in gear, the team worked full speed ahead on the details. It took the necessary steps to establish Fresh Start Pallet Products as a recognized non-profit business with a formal business plan. With Fresh Start's official legal standing assured, the team proceeded to make sure that accounting, insurance, payroll and personnel processes were securely in place.

Fresh Start Opens for Business

Under tents in Grace's backyard, Fresh Start officially opened its "doors" for business in 2015, as a social justice mission focused on changing lives and providing second chances; befitting its motto, Building Furniture -- Rebuilding Lives. "For years, Grace Lutheran has sponsored missions of mercy through its year round Friday night public dinners, and its Janet's Closet clothing shop, both serving people in need," Pastor Rick told me. "Now we have a business focused on justice with a mission that helps people in need who want an opportunity to change their lives."

Soon the furniture offerings evolved from benches and chairs, to a variety of products including tables, planters, window boxes, shelves, and stools.  As sales revenue and donations increased, and winter loomed, the need for more manufacturing space grew. Nearby Trinity Episcopal Church offered its basement where operations continued to grow. What was meant to last for a winter, carried on for two years as Fresh Start added equipment, and engaged in a comprehensive process learning about hiring, personnel selection, productivity, quality, and marketing. As the business continued to grow, it soon became evident a larger, more functional and permanent location would be needed.

Right on cue, committee volunteers found a solution in Asylum Hill with room to house more trainees, as well as its core of dedicated volunteers. Fresh Start had an ideal spot to change more lives. It could focus unrestrained on conducting additional technical training, manufacturing more efficiently, improving its quality, expanding its offerings, and, most important of all, hiring more people in need of a fresh start.

A custom bench ready for final finishing.

Fresh Start's fan-backed chair.

The quality of Fresh Start's furniture has improved significantly under the direction of operations manager Ron Bell (a former trainee and now full time employee) and his team of trainee-employees and volunteers. Its products are becoming hot commodities. Thanks to Mike McGarry's support, Fresh Start's full line of products was featured at February's Connecticut Flower and Garden Show at the Connecticut Convention Center. McGarry, an Asylum Hill Neighborhood advocate and head of Hartford Blooms, the city's annual flower garden tour, was enthusiastic to assist.

In its new location, Fresh Start continued to develop new and amazing products. Along with its benches and chairs, it has built in vogue "steampunk" lamps, display racks for two Salvation Army thrift stores, and creatively modified used furniture acquired from Hartford Habitat's ReStore  -- all of these have contributed to building an inventory of unique and functional home furnishings. As Pastor Rick told me, "Our furniture design has advanced to skilled artisan quality. We call it 'Fresh Start Version 2.0.'" As a prime example, he had me sit in a wooden chair built with the seat contour of a Mercedes. It was so comfortable I felt like driving it home right from the showroom.

The "Mercedes" chair.

Table in Pastor Rick's study.

A handcrafted display table.

A custom "steampunk" lamp.

Awaiting front drawer facades, an old bureau has been transformed 
into a fully functioning potting bench plumbed for water.

A small harvest table ready for delivery.

Progress to Date and Looking to the Future

During the past three years, Fresh Start has offered a second chance to fourteen people, three of whom were hired as full time employees, and has generated revenue approaching $100,000. However, much more is required to grow and sustain the real business -- the business of changing lives; of saving lives. Through improved public relations and marketing, Fresh Start is taking steps to strengthen its bottom line. It's in the final stages of becoming an independent non-profit. As a stand-alone 501(c)(3), Fresh Start's opportunities to raise much needed funding are expected to grow dramatically. Increasing individual and corporate donations, along with obtaining access to more grant funds, are essential to ensuring the healthy cash flow required to grow the business. It would enable Fresh Start to hire more trainees, as well as upgrade tools and equipment -- tools and equipment essential to ensure its trainees obtain the market-ready skills necessary to re-enter the workforce.

Fresh Start welcomes all who want to support the program. Interested parties seeking more information about Fresh Start's business, either to purchase furniture, volunteer, or donate money, tools, or equipment, are encouraged to write to Grace Lutheran Church, 46 Woodland Street, Hartford, CT 06105, or call the church office at (860) 527-7792, or contact Fresh Start Board Chair Pastor Rick Kremer at

Tour Fresh Start on Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Of special note, on June 13, Fresh Start will host an open house as the last stop on Hartford Blooms' Asylum Hill neighborhood tour. The Asylum Hill tour is part of Hartford Blooms Garden Tours' annual nine-day, June 9-17, bus and walking tour of Hartford neighborhoods.  The open house will feature music, food and flowers befitting the tour's theme: "Jazz, Arts & Flowers." It will be an excellent opportunity to see Fresh Start's operations first hand. Event details, registration and ticket information can be obtained on Hartford Blooms website:; or by calling its office at (860) 296-6128.

It's spring. It's a time of renewal.

Fresh starts renew lives.

Fresh starts begin with grace.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr. and Fresh Start Pallet Products LLC 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Life Saving Diversions at St. Elizabeth House

St. Elizabeth House, 118 Main Street, Hartford, CT,
home of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's Diversion Center.

Waiting for the door to open, people are lined up as many as forty deep on a typical weekday morning at St. Elizabeth House's main entrance. They are our neighbors in crisis hoping for support once inside. In imminent danger of being swallowed into the downward cycle of homelessness, they are seeking a life saving diversion from living on the street. This is their reality. And it's just a small glimpse of their daily reality that I saw on my recent visit to St. Elizabeth's. I was there to learn first-hand about Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's innovative program to divert people away from becoming homeless.

Twenty months ago on July 5, 2016, Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation (Mercy) welcomed its first clients to its newly created Diversion Center at St. Elizabeth House on Main Street in Hartford. Faced with diminishing federal and state financial support for Mercy's long-established transitional housing programs, Executive Director Dave Martineau, now retired, and current ED Judith Gough led a nine month multi-organization collaboration to develop an aggressive "up front" program designed to immediately divert people away from homelessness --- people who are on the brink of having to survive minute to minute alone with no place to go. "This program enhances Mercy's ability to prevent a person from becoming homeless before their situation spins into a full-blown, life threatening crisis," Executive Director Gough told me.

Throughout its thirty-five year old mission of providing housing assistance and supportive services to persons who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, Mercy has prided itself as being on the forefront of creating workable community solutions. Simple and direct, the Diversion Center's goal is to find its clients safe, stable housing rapidly. The Center's reach is wide. It provides services in what's organized as the Greater Hartford Coordinated Area Network, which, in addition to Hartford and its surrounding towns, includes Enfield, Manchester, East Hartford, Ellington, and Tolland.

"Nearly thirty percent of people in this situation [of being homeless] can be diverted from this tragic outcome with minimal mediation," according to Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness workshops. "Often the solution can be overcome with little or no money to reverse the events leading to homelessness," saving Hartford and Connecticut thousands of dollars.

According to Stephanie Corbin, Mercy's Shelter Diversion Coordinator, the diversion process is best described as highly responsive "front door triage." It provides personalized solutions with accompanying emotional support aimed at mitigating the problems leading to a client's crisis. It's all accomplished at the Center in centralized coordination with several Hartford based agencies serving the homeless, including Journey Home, the Salvation Army, Community Health Resources, and the City of Hartford. Corbin emphasized that the key to successful client outcomes is case manager creativity.  The solution for each client must address the direct question, "What do we need to do right now to keep you out of the shelter system?"

Stephanie Corbin (L), Shelter Diversion Coordinator, conducts a case
conferencing session with case managers (L-R) Jackie Florez, Shefia Ibrahim,
and Latoya Smith to review recommendations for each client.

To counsel people in crisis quickly and directly, a collaborative team of case managers from Mercy, the Salvation Army, and Community Health Resources staff the Center every week. People seeking the Center's support first call the 211 Infoline, which initially assesses the caller's need for services, and then, as deemed appropriate, schedules an appointment for them to see a Center case manager within 24 to 48 hours. Appointments are scheduled Monday through Friday beginning at 9:00 AM.

A sampling of client-specific crisis resolutions include:
  • Arranging a family intervention allowing a teenager to seek redemption and return home after being kicked out for unacceptable behavior.
  • Working with a family facing eviction because of an unresolved rent dispute with their landlord. 
  • Working with a family being evicted for violating a rental agreement by housing non-family members.
  • Assisting a client with short-term financial assistance needed to keep them in good stead with their landlord while they recover from a medical setback.  
  • Providing a client with bus or train fare enabling them to reunite and live with family residing in another state.

In addition to crisis resolution assistance, Diversion Center clients may also see a nurse or physician's assistant in the center's medical suite staffed by Charter Oak Health Center, or find respite in St. Elizabeth House's Friendship Center with a healthy meal, or hot shower.

St. Elizabeth's Friendship Center serves a hot lunch prepared on site. 

Opened just twenty months ago, Mercy's Diversion Center is still in its formative stage, yet its results to date are encouraging. In fiscal year 2017, 2,577 individuals were seen by a case manager. During that period 456 were diverted from homelessness, sixty-two of whom were between the ages of 18-24, and 124 required limited financial assistance that helped them avoid homelessness. Further, 1,244 people, whose cases were not readily resolvable, were referred directly to city shelters, and the remaining group were either referred to other area programs, or were deemed ineligible for assistance.

According to Executive Director Gough current demand for the Center's diversion service is showing an increase over last fiscal year. With one full year of experience, and a second well underway, the Diversion Center has charted a path for other agencies serving the homeless to follow, and to improve upon collectively. It's a path the Connecticut Department of Housing strongly endorses. It's a path leading to life saving diversions, or perhaps one could say "Mercy-ful Diversions."

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.

For the Record: I am currently a member of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation's Board of Trustees. Further, I served as an analyst in developing "Hartford's Plan to End Chronic Homelessness by 2015"; and I represented Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity in the development of a subsequent implementation plan called "Journey Home -- The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in the Capitol Region"

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Delicious Food with a Generous Serving of Second Chances

Chris White, a Culinary Training Collaborative graduate,
with Felicia Jenkins, Chef Instructor at Zest 280

Eat lunch at Zest 280 and you'll enjoy a good, healthy lunch along with a generous serving of second chances. I did. On my first visit I savored this mission-based café's homemade Grain Bowl. It was a delicious combination of lentils, quinoa, brown rice, peppers, tomato, kale and grilled chicken. This cozy café at 280 Park Road in West Hartford, sister restaurant to the acclaimed Pond House Café, is celebrating its first anniversary since owners Kim Yarum and Louis Lista reopened it a year ago with a mission dedicated to providing former prison inmates a second chance to earn the skills necessary to re-enter society with a viable career in the workplace.

Zest 280's complete menu is a made-from-scratch fare of soups, salads, sandwiches, and hot plates, all prepared on-site by paid "externs" who commit to a rigorous career development program sponsored by Community Partners in Action (CPA) in collaboration with Zest 280 and The Kitchen at Billings Forge in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood.

On the day of my first visit, Chris White was my host and server. His welcoming style, attention to detail, and willingness to explain Zest 280's mission appropriately complemented Zest’s bright and open atmosphere. He holds a permanent position on the Pond House Café's banquet staff, where he was placed after completing his Zest externship. However, this day Chris was handling Zest's hosting duties gladly to fill a last minute staffing need.

 The healthy, homemade Grain Bowl I ate on my first visit. 

On my second visit my friend had the Roasted Beet Salad and ...

... I ordered the Salmon Cake Served Over Indian Rice.

Working as a Culinary Training Collaborative, CPA, The Kitchen and Zest 280 combine to provide professional training in food preparation and customer service with actual on-the-job business experience to prepare people "seeking a second chance for careers in the culinary arts and hospitality industries." The Collaborative is integral to CPA's mission which focuses on behavioral change and advocacy for criminal justice reform. CPA's "employment, basic needs, reentry and recovery services work together to reduce recidivism, enhance public safety and inform public policy -- all at a fraction of the cost of prison."

Critical to the Collaborative's success is The Kitchen at Billings Forge. Its Kitchen Culinary Program provides desperately needed paid job training opportunities for people who face the often overwhelming challenges of unemployment, low education levels, and high poverty rates. Also, it seeks to help the significant number of former prisoners who are released to Hartford where they often remain only to face high barriers to employment.  The Kitchen's specific on-the-job training creates real-life experiences for participants interested in both culinary and customer service careers. All training is conducted by experienced professionals working side-by-side with students cooking for and serving patrons in its café, as well as at catered events. As reported on its web site "almost 100 folks so far have started the training and, within eight weeks of completing the program, 75% went directly to jobs with starting wages averaging 119% of minimum wage."

Zest 280 fulfills its partnership responsibilities by employing selected Kitchen Culinary Program graduates directly into what it calls its 10-week hands-on culinary "externship." It's a paid position with the opportunity for the graduates to apply their newly acquired skills outside of a training environment. Externs work under the tutelage of Chef Instructor Felicia Jenkins, a seasoned chef who turned her own second chance years ago into more than two decades of combined experience with The Kitchen and the Pond House Café. Felicia guides the externs through a structured program designed to provide advanced culinary skills, as well as "front-of-the-house" customer service skills critical to professional interaction with the public. After completing their externship, participants receive Zest's assistance in finding permanent job placement through interview coaching, and guidance on resume preparation and job application completion. To date twelve externs have successfully completed the program and nine have been placed in area positions.

On my third visit Victoria Negrón was our host and server.
My friend enjoyed the Zesty Starter and I savored
the perfectly spiced Thai Chicken Salad.

Zest 280's bright and open atmosphere.

The Culinary Training Collaborative is an excellent example of a partnership determined to clear a pathway back into society for individuals seeking a second chance. The opportunity to work at Zest 280 provides a vital step along the road to gainful employment. It's a step toward restoring hope and dignity to a vulnerable population searching for an opportunity for redemption.  Zest 280 is The Eatery with a Twist where you'll enjoy a delicious healthy lunch with a generous serving of second chances. 

Believe in second chances and eat with Zest! Often!   

Zest 280 is located at 280 Park Road in West Hartford
(Photo from the Community Partners in Action web site)

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr., and one from Community Partners in Action as noted.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Face Reality. Take a Stand. Make a Difference.

Lighting a Candle in Frauenkirsche, Munich, Germany
In Memory of My Father Who Fought in WWII
to Free the World of Nazi Tyranny

January 27, 2018
International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust

Indifference manifests itself in ignorance, silence and acceptance. Turning our backs to the injustices suffered by the marginalized, vulnerable, and victimized in our local communities and around the world is a weak and heartless admission that the status quo is just fine with us when it doesn't affect our lives directly -- at least not yet. And that's a very big "yet" because unchecked turmoil can arrive anytime at our doorsteps regardless of who we think we are.

Let's face reality. The other, the stranger, the not-of-my-kind are real people, not abstractions. Each has a story -- a personal story of a real life, filled the with the kinds of hopes and dreams most of us share in wanting to be accepted, and allowed to live in peace and pursue a purposeful life.

The challenge is to move us from uncaring indifference, or gratuitous caring with no commitment, to making a genuinely positive difference, large or small, however we are able. We must move from ignoring today's reality to facing it head-on by taking a stand, and turn ignorance into awareness and action.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel fought relentlessly against the force of indifference. It's dangerous. It's deadly. In his December 10, 1986, Nobel Prize acceptance speech Wiesel said,

"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe." 

Let's face reality. Let's take a stand. Let's make a difference. Today and always.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photograph by Don Shaw, Jr.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Faith is a Verb

Sign on Bike & Build trailer in the
First Congregational Church of Granby, CT parking lot

“To have faith in something is an inducement not to dormancy but to action. To me, faith is not just a noun but also a verb.” – President Jimmy Carter

I’ve had the good fortune and honor of meeting President Carter a few times including being invited to sit right beside him at lunch on a Habitat for Humanity work site in Haiti, as well as, to attend one of his Sunday school lessons at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. What has always impressed me is his true interest getting to know a person as an individual -- you, me, whomever he is with. As his friend Rev. Eloy Cruz taught him, people need “to love the person who happens to be in front of  [them] at any particular time.” That is, it's vital to deal in specifics (what we actually will commit to doing) in our relationships with the people around us -- those we know, those who are strangers, those we serve, those who serve us, those who need protection from injustice. It led Carter to a question he continues ask himself to this day, “What shall I do?” It’s a question we should ask ourselves always, individually and as a group.

President Jimmy Carter welcoming the congregation
before teaching his Sunday School lesson
at Maranatha Baptist Church, Plains, GA

To help keep me focused on President Carter’s question, I frequently listen to These Hands a song sung by one of my favorite singers Dave Gunning of Nova Scotia. It’s a song I’d like my church to sing. Here are excerpts from the lyrics by Dave Gunning and George Canyon:

Dave Gunning performing at the
Salmon Brook Music Series in Granby, CT

Some hands have held the world together
Some hands have fought in wars forever
Tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine
Some hands have blessed a million people
Some hands helped free the world from evil
Tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine 
The world could use a hero of the human kind
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine
Some hands can stop a life from dying
Some hands comfort a baby crying
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine 
The world could use a hero of the human kind
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine
I want to sing it from my heart, I want to hear it in the wind 'Til it blows around the world, and comes back again All that we can ask, is for ours to be free To use them when we want, for whatever the need
Some hands give voice to a nation
Some hands wrote "The Times They Are a-Changin'"
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine
The world could use a hero of the human kind
So tell me what shall I do with these hands of mine

To fulfill our individual and collective responsibility to build a better world, we must answer the question, What shall we do with these hands of ours? Faith is a verb for all of us.

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.