Getting with the program

ReBound WoodWorks helps the chronically unemployed find work

Posted: Monday, June 13, 2005

ANCHORAGE - The customer glanced at the wooden porch swings, the moose planters, the swallow houses. She knew just what she wanted and thought the woodworkers might be able to help. Could they make a mock wishing well for her yard? By Wednesday?

The guys running the Sunday market booth, Robert Houle and Dwight Milligrock Jr., are formerly homeless. They are recovering from alcohol abuse. They've never made a wishing well. But they are new entrepreneurs, and the customers must be served.

Sure, they said.

Houle and Milligrock are part of a new program - part business, part social enterprise - that aims to provide meaningful work for people who have been chronically unemployed and just a step away from the street. Called ReBound WoodWorks, it's a project of Rural Alaska Community Action Program, the private agency that serves low-income people with Head Start, housing and job programs.

The idea began several years ago with Hilary Morgan, a former director of Brother Francis Shelter, now with RuralCAP.

Street people often end up as day laborers, where they may make just $10 for a hard day's work, or as dishwashers or fast-food-counter help, Morgan said. They feel like just another cog in the wheel and usually have a what-do-I-care attitude.

With ReBound, "if it succeeds it is because they did something right," Morgan said. And if it fails, it's because they did something wrong, she said.

Program manager Roy Corral, a photographer, said the crew has "broken all of the myths about homeless people," especially the stereotype that they are lazy.

Organizers expected the ReBound employees to put in a few weeks of hard work, then take a break. They figured people with years of hard street life might not easily adjust to the rigidity of a 40-hour-a-week schedule so made work days flexible. But it turned out the crew works all it can, probably because the workers are treated like partial owners, Morgan said.

"I was so used to doing whatever I pleased whenever I pleased," said Milligrock, 49, who was raised in Nome and lost 32 years of his life to hard drinking. He now has his own apartment and truck and has been sober for three years and 11 months.

His previous job was working nights at a residential program for chronic alcoholics, one he had graduated from, but he couldn't deal with drunks now that he had sobered up. The woodworking job pays him $10.75 an hour and is stress-free, which helps him stick with it, Milligrock said. And mistakes are OK; that's how they learn.

"It's steady, and I learn every day. Everybody is part of it," said Greg Russell, one of the woodworkers, who has long, gray curls and is less than a year off the streets where he drank away four years. He's sober now and stopped by the Sunday market to check out the booth on a busy sunny day. "This is good in every direction, for the environment, for the people doing it," he said.

The ReBound workers go to Spinell Homes construction sites and collect scrap lumber from waste bins that otherwise would end up in landfills. They make bird houses, dog houses, picnic tables and porch swings, which are painted white, bright red or green. For the planters, they use cedar, which they must buy. ReBound's scraps are recycled as compost.

The pieces may look simple, but even the $15 swallow house has impressive detail, with notches on the inside so the birds can step up and out the hole.

The municipality helped launch the effort with a $50,000 recycling grant. The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority kicked in $10,000, and RuralCAP has put in about $50,000, Morgan said. The money is like a loan any new business would need, she said.

In five years, she wants ReBound to be a money-making corporation with employees sharing the proceeds.

As customers browsed on a recent Sunday at the downtown Anchorage Market and Festival, Houle, 47, turned from woodworker to salesman. He spent five years in the U.S. Navy and came to ReBound through a veterans work program.

ReBound will have a booth all summer at the Sunday market and also sells its wares at Bell's Nursery and Alaska Mill & Feed Co.

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