A unique network of eight social service agencies gathered in Eugene, OR last month. The Cascade Alliance meeting was the coming out event for the network of East Coast agencies along with their anchor organization, Saint Vincent De Paul of Lane County.
The agencies located in cities from Lowell, MA to Orlando, FL have become entrepreneurs, establishing business based on the repair and resale of refurbished products, including appliances, mattresses and furniture, books, textiles and more. All new enterprises are based on successful model businesses initiated and operated by SVDP, which itself is a highly successful social service agency supporting 1,000 affordable housing units, basic social services and a proven pathway from poverty to family, economic and social stability. SVDP enterprises has 500 hundred workers. Since the Great Recession of 2008-9, SVDP has added one hundred jobs and increased wages and maintained its policy of full health insurance coverage for all employees. Profits from the businesses support SVDP’s extensive social and community mission.
Many of the training sessions were lead by SVDP staff whose own lives have been stabilized, diverted from poverty and are now working hard to help others along the same pathway.
The East Coast network represents two-years of work to replicate SVDP’s successful Oregon based enterprises. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ, has funded the effort.
The first gathering of this network allowed the network to further the growth of each new enterprise. The program featured problem solving and training sessions by leading experts in messaging, taxes credits, and relationships with solid waste bureaucracies, computer, textile and new product design experts. SVDP provided three technical background papers. A tour of SVDP facilities allowed the network representatives to see how their business expansion plans may look like in the near future. SVDP’s articulate and knowledgeable staff explained the intricacies of repair, draining valuable liquids and safety practices.
Another highlight was a tour de force presentation on commodity markets and price fluctuations and logistics presented by SVDP Director Terry McDonald, a national-genius-quality community and business leader and humanitarian.
No Capital But Access to Discards
The region surrounding Eugene, OR in the l890s suffered a devastating collapse of the lumber industry which rippled across the entire economy. SVDP’s thrift stores were seeing families that contributed products for others now coming in and asking for assistance. SVDP reacted by adjusting its mission to help these workers and families restore their stable livelihood.
Access to the local waste stream was critical. McDonald steadily built relationships with transfer station and landfill managers. SVDP still captures products at the face of these waste facilities, rescuing valuable resources while reducing the flow to landfills. Added value through processing and repair became the capital for economic progress for workers with good wages and health insurance, enabling communities to prosper as the cost of living came down by an estimated 3% for its customers. The West Coast network of transshipping product and materials runs from Portland to San Francisco with plans to extend the runs to Southern California. Remarkably furniture comes from Europe for restoration by SVDP workshops and resale. SVDP splits the profits with its European non-profit partners. SVDP operates one mattress recycling plant in Oakland. This has allowed SVDP to weigh in on the side of sensible EPR mandates that nurture community enterprise vs. concentration by the international mattress industrial complex.
Meeting Goals and Having Fun
To date the East Coast network development has fallen on McDonald and business analyst and partner in cross country treks, Susan Palmer, indefatigable travel and attention to details. Their ingenuity, commitment and energetic follow up has allowed enterprises to survive even sudden challenges that would have sunk other non profit and for profit small businesses, including infusions of small but critically needed capital, equipment and market of last resort. The team visits and revisits each of the eight sites on regular swings up and down the East Coast.
An important session for participants was the peer-to-peer problem solving in which breakout groups addressed the top challenges each of the organizations faced. This session established the baseline for conferences success. McDonald and Palmer will save invaluable time to extend the network to more cities and counties. “This mutual trouble shooting by network organizations”, stated Palmer, “will be another hallmark of the Cascade Alliance.“ The meeting also helped SVDP and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation develop a brand for their efforts as messaging experts observed the entire two-day event.
The days were packed with mundane details of next generation equipment, store, factory and warehouse management, worker and customer security. Yet there was an idealistic aspect to these social entrepreneurs as well. Each group expressed their high aspirations for their communities and for the country. Profound personal experiences and life-transitions were shared that established lasting ties.
Finally, the conference coordinators did not ignore the need for fun. Elements of each session were entertaining and colorful. These were topped off with an awards ceremony that celebrated each agency, naturally with awards made by SVDP staff.
Current Cascade Alliance Member Organizations
The Mustard Seed of Central Florida
Mustard Seed is a furniture and clothing bank established in 1984 in Orlando, Fla., with a mission of helping those in emergency situations with household furnishing and clothing. With our help (and thanks to RWJF funding) they opened a retail thrift store and set up a mattress recycling facility. Most recently they contracted with Disney to take mattresses from the theme park’s hotels. The organization’s annual budget is estimated at $1 million.
Greater Bridgeport Community Enterprises
Greater Bridgeport Community Enterprises is a nonprofit with the missions of job training, job creation and environmental stewardship. Their job training programs include energy conservation and weatherization in construction, Brownfield remediation and deconstruction. We helped them set up a mattress recycling facility and on line used book sales. They have been selected by the state of Connecticut as an official mattress recycler under the new stewardship laws that will go into effect early next year. They have an annual budget of about $600,000.
The Cara Program in Chicago Il,
A life-skills training, job training and job creation nonprofit founded in 1991 that also operates a neighborhood cleanup program called Cleanslate. With our help they started an online book sales project called Chapter Two. They have an annual budget of $6 million.
The Up Center in Norfolk VA,
A multiple social services agencies that started in 1883 as Norfolk United Charities to help alleviate homelessness and poverty. Today they provide adoption services and foster care, youth mentoring and family counseling. They do job training, financial counseling; provide a day center for those with disabilities including a summer camp and therapeutic recreation. They were already selling books online when we began working with them, but we are helping that enterprise become profitable. We are working with them to develop mattress recycling and helped them become an official recycler to the Navy. Their annual budget is $13 million.
Opportunity House in Reading PA,
Multiple social services provider founded in 1984 and offers a homeless shelter, a child care center, supportive services for veterans and their families including case management, and a special support program for child victims of sexual abuse. We helped them set up eBay sales of clothing and household items, are helping them set up online book sales and expect to see them open a retail thrift store sometime next spring. They have an annual budget of close to $4 million.
The United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, MA
This nonprofit was initially organized by young people in Lowell in 1999, driven to develop a place to go and be safe in the wake of gang violence in their community. Today they are a youth development agency with a job training arm and social enterprise mission, including a recently opened café, and plans for a day care. We helped them develop a mattress recycling facility. They have an annual budget of $5 million.
Urban League of Essex County in Newark NJ
Founded in 1917, the Urban League has multiple missions, including employment services, job training, and neighborhood revitalization and housing education and counseling. We have created a pilot program for them to gather clothing and books through the placement of donation bins in the community. Any of the materials they collect will go to the Reading PA Opportunity House. If we see good results from this effort we will work with them to develop a retail thrift store in Newark. They have an annual budget of $3.4 million.
Exceed Enterprises of Portland OR
This nonprofit provides vocational and personal development services for people with disabilities in the Portland area. It was established in 1968. They offer both sheltered workshops and work enclaves for people with disabilities. We are working with them to develop mattress recycling in Portland (it’s been a long slow process, largely because of foot dragging from solid waste officials). We are also developing up cycled products with them, including the manufacture of leather wrist cuffs from old belts. They have an annual budget of $3.3 million.
Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta, Atlanta GA
This is our newest partner (we are still working out the details of our MOU), but they plan to set up both a mattress rebuilding operation and a mattress recycling facility. They have already purchased mattresses from our member in Norfolk VA and last month had a meeting with the mayor of Atlanta as the city is developing a zero waste plan. We think they are well positioned to be successful, but we have done little beyond visiting and planning. We provided the slide show on mattress recycling that they presented to the mayor. Their annual budget is $740,000.
 Candles, windowpane glass, shoes.
 Download Mattress Recycling White Paper: https://ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2015/01/2014-mattress-recycling-white-paper.docx
Download Online Books White Paper: https://ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2015/01/2014-online-books-white-paper.docx
Download Thrift Store White Paper: https://ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2015/01/2014-thrift-store-white-paper.docx