The Fresh Start Story
The sole reason for launching Fresh Start was the large number of homeless and unemployed people surrounding the Grace Lutheran Church in the Asylum Hill section of Hartford, the most transient section of the city with the largest proportion of immigrants and refugees.
The sole reason for launching Fresh Start was the large number of homeless and unemployed people surrounding the Grace Lutheran Church in the Asylum Hill section of Hartford, the most transient section of the city with the largest proportion of immigrants and refugees. The church has a weekly “Friday Gathering” open and free to the community. Over the nine years since it started, thousands have come to enjoy a warm, fresh-cooked meal, in a safe and welcoming environment. Guests are also offered information, a place to meet with friends, to establish new relationships, and a place to be entertained, appreciated, and recognized. It was here that the idea took root for Fresh Start. In 2013, a volunteer at the church had seen how people in the community were being ticketed for loitering as they tried to speak together on the sidewalks surrounding the church.
She asked a carpenter if he would be willing to build some benches so that people could sit on church property without being disturbed. They walked around the church to see where the benches might be positioned and noticed across the street a pile of used wood pallets as an apartment building was replacing furniture and appliances. They smiled at each other saying, “And there is the wood!”
A year later, a new pastor joined the church and while hosting the “Friday Gatherings” he got to know many of those guests and heard their stories. Virtually all were without jobs, many without a home, and others suffering addictions, health problems, broken families, developmental challenges, and physical problems. Most were simply living in poverty. In the pastor’s heart he felt “it is great that we are serving these folks with food and clothing, and building community, but nothing changes.” What can we do that might change these circumstances… “Mercy is a good thing, but justice is what is needed.”
These folks needed healthcare, food, clothing, housing, counseling, education and hope. And, they REALLY needed work! But, in reality, they had a very low likelihood of getting jobs. Some had spent time in prisons, others were veterans who had been damaged by their tours and lived with uncertain futures. Others had arrived here escaping the horrors of their homelands.
While a job would never solve all of these problems, it could be a catalyst. When the pastor learned how the furniture had been built and when and why, he asked, “Did you ever think of making this a business?”
Fresh Start Pallet Products was conceived in the spring of 2015 when we began building furniture in the back yard of Grace Lutheran Church with volunteers. We had a fund-raiser in June of that year, and quickly learned that we could build sturdy, attractive, and affordable furniture from used wood pallets.
People loved the idea, supported us, and bought our products. We raised nearly $25,000 in 2015 and sold almost $8,000 in products.
It was clear from the very beginning that having a job was only part of the equation. And, those gathering around the idea realized that we would need significant professional assistance from hospitals, healthcare, and wellness organizations, those that treat addictions and help people from broken families with children at risk. There is no way that we could do this without partners. We reached out to Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, and in particular Rev. Dr. Marcus McKinney, who was with us from the very start.
He led us to Inter Community Health, Inc. and to the Wheeler Health and Wellness Center, and we established relationships with them. We talked with people from Chyrsalis Center and Catholic Family Services. By the time of the first fundraiser, people from these organizations participated with encouragement and support.
By October we had established ourselves as an LLC; registered with state and federal governments; acquired insurance; began paying people; established Fresh Start Pallet Products as a business; set up checking accounts for the enterprise and for the individuals we first hired; obtained workers’ compensation coverage; and ultimately moved into the basement of Trinity Episcopal Hartford for a suitable indoor workspace. We invited OSHA to come and look at our set up, made changes accordingly, and by year-end we were operating in that basement.
At the time, we assumed we would need to be there just until the spring of 2016. However, we stayed nearly two years, cleaning, painting and clearing the space so that we could produce a wider number of products with upgraded equipment to replace the hand tools we began with. In addition, we made changes to the electrical system supporting the basement and hired more workers. Trinity was generous in not charging us rent. They also allowed us full access to that space and to the back of the church, where we were able to deliver pallets and carry finished products to be delivered to customers.
We are approaching the end of our fourth year in business, and are now operating in a fully-intentioned manufacturing space in Veeder Place (28 Sargeant Street, Hartford, CT, 06105).
We have access to a perfect loading dock, showroom, administrative offices, and a 12,000-square-foot space for storing pallets and building furniture. And, we now have space for commercial grade equipment, enabling us to produce engineered products to precise specifications in a space suited for the business.
Building Furniture, Rebuilding Lives
Just as individuals need each other to grow and develop, so do organizations. Fresh Start has a plethora
of partners and the number is growing. We value partnerships, we see that we cannot address the whole person without a whole lot of help. What we are finding is that by coming together with others, individual volunteers and organizational supporters we can do so much more and do it so much better. We work at developing new partners every day, and we truly value all those engaged with us in the beginning and those with us now. Thanks partners! We value what you do and what you do for us.