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 the 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 rickkremer@aol.com.

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: http://hartfordblooms.gdn; 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
RedTruckStonecatcher.com

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