Though freelancing since he was five (carrying people’s groceries for fifty cents), Antonio’s first real job was watching the corner—signaling for dealers down the block when cops came around. He was 13, making $20 a day, most of which went to Granny to keep the lights on or put food on the table for he and his four younger siblings. Having retired from her career as a psychologist, she did her best to stretch her welfare check in all the directions, but it was hard.
“We had a grandmother that was pretty old, but she did the best she could by us. It was like a tug-o-war kind of thing—I had Granny on one side and I had the streets pulling me on the other side,” says Antonio.
Addictions to alcohol and crack had kept his parents on the streets, so at single-digit ages, Antonio was the man of the house and took responsibility to provide. Never lacking in drive or work ethic, he climbed the ladder available to him, “hustlin, dealin,” he says, which is what landed him in prison at 18. Released shortly after his 25th birthday, Antonio returned to the streets and a year later was picked up on a handgun charge and sentenced again, this time to five years, no parole.
“At that point, Granny lost. At that point, the streets won.”
The bullet’s still sticking out of my back. Every time I got shot, I went back to the streets. That's all I knew.
A charming go-getter who cared about his clientele, Antonio did well for himself, you might say, but the violence and threat of violence were constant. At 15, he was shot over his heart. At 17, he was shot three times—hip, stomach, and knee—which put him in shock trauma for a month. The third time, he was shot in his buttocks and his back.
“The guys that I grew up with, we all came out of the same boat, we was all on the same corners together, we all had the same story.” By the time Antonio came out of prison for good, at 30, he’d been stabbed twice and spent nearly a year (300 days) in solitary confinement.
“I finally got to the point that I wanted to do something different, I wanted to put all the energy that I had left into something constructive and positive, instead of something that I know would have eventually gotten me killed, or sent me to prison for the rest of my life. I just decided to turn my life around.”
It was around that time that Antonio's brother introduced him to Second Chance. “I had no experience, no education, so I pretty much told them [during the interview] the only thing I could do was bring a respectful, dedicated, loyal guy to the organization and we’d have to see from that point on.” Given a chance to prove himself, he had no intentions of disappointing.
Even chock full, the warehouse feels cavernous. Way up in the rafters, fifty feet above, you can still see the cranes from the building’s days as a manufacturing plant. As you enter, everything you’ll see or walk on has been donated: the blue stone steps, the gymnasium floor, the tobacco barnwood wall paneling, bulletproof windows from the FBI, podiums and pews from churches, cabinetry from local museums, lighting from the Philadelphia Civic Center and a chandelier/love story from the Lower Baltimore Hotel.
Cari Clemens and Pete Theodore walk us through 240,000 square feet of retail space (which doesn’t include the lumber yard of equal scale). “We have eight trucks that come in a week—over 35 donations coming in, of home furnishings, high end kitchens,” says Cari, and she would know. For the past eight years, Cari has curated much of what we see on the floor. Her team (Donations and Acquisitions) researches each and every item to properly assess value.
“The wild thing is a lot of the treasures we have come from simple households. It comes in, it's a ruby glass vase and we're like, ‘One more vase from an old person.’ Then we look it up, and we’re like, ‘Okay, so that's a $1,400 ruby vase...’ You don't realize that they themselves cherished it, purchased it, like a unique piece of artwork, and now we're getting it and repurposing it,” says Cari.
Pete, who leads marketing and communications, points and nods to the medium-distance between us and a gang of pianos, “That’s an 1800's Romanian hay wagon over there.”
Cari continues, “And there's all sorts of markdowns. That's also what makes us unique compared to the big boxes—you can finagle the price.”
Anyone and everyone at Second Chance will tell you that every day is different—they never know who or what will come through the door. Take this random phone call that Cari received on a Tuesday back in October:
“This man called and said, ‘I need to get this flooring out of our warehouse. Are you interested?’ I said, ‘You know, if it's maple flooring, sure.’ So, we brought it in. It was already palatalized—covered in so much dust and shrink wrap. We had a volunteer group from Under Armor come in and we gave it to them as a project—to figure out what it was. We saw red, and then they came up with two ends of the original basketball court from UMD’s Cole Field House!”
Readers / Second Chance would like you to know this historic piece can be yours for $125,000 an end, which Pete says is a steal.
Every item we see has been handled by a variety of Second Chance staff, beginning (typically) in receiving, where many donations are received, processed and tested before they're ready for the sales floor. It’s also where many new hires start out as warehouse workers, like Antonio did.
Since he started 10 years ago, Antonio has been promoted through nearly the entire org chart: from receiving to running the receiving department, then to sales, then to the front-desk as a cashier. He’s been the Customer Service Manager for two years now, managing 40 employees and loving it.
“We take care of each other, we feed each other. We have lunch days, breakfast days, Orioles games every now and then,” he says. “A lot of the guys who come through the door we try to keep them on the right track, getting them bus fare or rides home or picking them up at the bus stop when it’s cold. The biggest thing about reentry is the support—it’s hard to get any type of satisfaction out of reentry when you don’t have support. It’s like a big family…not a perfect family, you know how that is…but we get through.”
These are remarkable men and women. Their book's been judged by its cover in many respects. Give these guys an opportunity to be successful, and you'll be surprised.Mark FosterFounderSecond Chance
Deconstructing to Construct
If not in the warehouse, most new hires will start out on the decon team. Deconstruction is a major part of the model—it’s the living classroom where crews learn new skills and also the heart of Second Chance’s waste stream diversion efforts.
Pete explains how it works: “Somebody owns a home and they decide they’re going to rebuild on the property, so they donate the house to us, and we use it as a living classroom. We salvage all the materials, diverting them from the waste stream and since it’s a donation, the homeowner gets a massive tax benefit. It’s a win-win-win."
On this particular day, Second Chance has nine crews out, all in different places. They leave the warehouse at 6:15 in the morning and stay with the same house for 10 to 12 days, until it’s completely disassembled.
On average, these teams are bringing back five to six trucks each week—filled with salvaged materials from tear downs. “They say 40-60% of our landfills are filled pre and post construction debris, so I mean an entire house would be dumped there instead of recycled for reuse,” says Pete.
Lumber gets passed to the lumber yard where a crew has a system of de-nailing, banding and labeling—2 ¼" Red Oak, I read on a freshly wrapped bundle.
Anything metal gets sent to the recycling lot, where we meet Will Gartner, aka ‘Recycle Will’. He welcomes us and starts right in: "My job is recycle all the materials that come in—the copper, the aluminum. I'm in charge of that so of course I'm ‘Recycle Will’."
Hardly prompted, Will shares his story: "I went to prison in 1968, at 16, and came home in 2015. Went in at 16, came out at 62. It's hard getting a job, especially at my age and being away so long. So absolutely it's a second chance for me. There's people out here that need help like that. We need more organizations like Second Chance, so that people coming home can get jobs."
The name in itself speaks volumes, not just for all the stuff, but it’s a second chance for me. Especially for me.Will GartnerRecyclingSecond Chance
A Second Chance Marriage
By nineteen, Jess was half a decade in to a heavy drinking habit, expelled from high school, kicked out of her mom’s house and pregnant. An abusive boyfriend landed her in the hospital, which is when she got addicted to Percocet. At 22, she quit the boyfriend, but her drug habit deepened to heroin and crack.
A year later, she met Brandon Johnson, a charming guy who had been working in television repair with her brother-in-law. They dated a couple of years and married when Jess was 26.
“I actually introduced Brandon to heroin, which is one of my biggest regrets,” says Jess.
Brandon nods, “I was in love. They say you'll fall in before you dig somebody else out, but I saw something different in her. Turns out I was right, but at that moment, maybe it wasn't the greatest choice. It was a gamble, put it that way. We ended up falling down the hole together. It took for us to get locked up to go cold turkey and to be done with it.”
Jess picks up, “When I was finally incarcerated at 33, something just changed. All of our [six] kids were in the system at this point. We'd been homeless for quite some time before incarceration. I was 250 pounds. I was an addict. I had no education. My family was done with me because I'd been such a terrible person. It's just when I decided to change. I started a program in jail. I got sober, lost some weight, got my GED. I came home, and I thought that the world owed me something for changing, but then reality set in, and I had to earn respect back from my children and my parents and find a job on my own. It's been a very long, hard journey, but it's been worth it.”
In June 2018, Brandon and Jess will celebrate 10 years married. For the past year, they’ve both worked at Second Chance and consider it an essential platform for their rebuilding.
Within his first 90 days, Brandon was promoted to supervisor and has ambitions for management.
“A place like this prepares you for any kind of management because, if you look around, it's not like Walmart or Home Depot or any of those places. You don't know what's coming through that door. I learn every day,” he tells us. “It's a lot of different dynamics and personalities around here—you gotta get people to learn how to be civilized all over again. That's a heavy dynamic for anybody on any management team. They're developing job skills and people skills all at the same time.”
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Jess chimes in, “Plus, they recognize your effort. I've been promoted twice already. It feels good to be recognized for something positive for the first time in a really long time.”
While Brandon is in the lumber yard, Jess is up front helping customers: "It took a lot of training and a lot of people, like my manager, Antonio, who is this hardcore street guy. He'll have talks with me and say, 'Look Jess, I know what you're going through, but this is how you need to talk to people.'"
“So it's kind of like life training. It's being re-trained all over again. Not just business-wise, but to be a regular person. I'm still in training. I'm still getting my life together. I love my customers, and I love the people that I work with. It's just, it's my rock. It's my hope rock.”
We built our whole lives back up right here this year. Everything was right here, from this job. From day one, it's been right here.Brandon JohnsonSupervisorSecond Chance
With such dramatic impacts on so many lives and having created such tremendous hope for a marginalized community, it's almost shocking to hear the story of Second Chance's beginning. Mark Foster, a restaurant developer in Baltimore, had purchased an old house in Roland Park and in trying to restore it with historical accuracy, he found it difficult to source antique building elements.
"I truly love old stuff, and I think it's the fabric of the community that we had to see just go in the landfill. 'They don't make it like they used to' is true—and sometimes they don't make it at all."
So Mark started Second Chance mostly to salvage historic materials destined for the landfill. "I don't know that I ever envisioned what it is today," he admits, "with the 'second chance for people' side becoming as meaningful as it's become. I probably should have realized that it was going to be that way, but I just didn't. Maybe I didn't have the time or it wasn't part of the pro forma."
But the first four employees—Durrell, Daryl, Dante and Linwood—left such a deep impression that Mark immediately chokes up recalling those early days and what he learned during them. Those men paved the way for hundreds to follow after them.
Today, Second Chance employs about 200 people.
Again, it might be surprising, but one of the most respected and widely-recognized aspects of the culture here is how supportive the staff are of people moving on to other jobs and opportunities.
“We have this philosophy: We don't want you to stay at Second Chance. Ideally, we want to give you a life and vocational skills and then push you out to succeed,” says Pete.
Mark adds, “We try to open doors, but we also say to Joe, 'Hey, Joe, you're gonna help all the rest of the people if, when you get to where you're going, you do well.'" That bit of vision for creating new cycles of opportunity is hopefully one that will build and compound as years and workers go on.
A lot of times we'll say to employers, 'Take a chance on Joe. If it doesn't work out, we'll take him back.' It's not a one way door when you go.
By Spring 2019, Mark expects Second Chance Philadelphia to be fully operational: "Philadelphia has always had the same circumstances as many big cities have, same issues, same returning citizen population, same recycling and reuse and waste stream diversion issues. Replication is now easier because we have fifteen years of hard lessons learned, so we can make it happen a lot faster than it happened here."
And Pete has new workforce development projects in the works for the Baltimore location: "This year, we're going to train small cohorts of three to four employees through an internship on repairing furniture—making custom things out of reclaimed materials and selling some of those. That will just be one more skill for them, one more exposure that maybe they could take somewhere else and do something with."
Everybody here been through trials and tribulations, some type of felony charge, or whatever the case may be. The bigger organizations or corporations, they shut us out because we felons. Second Chance helps out a lot because they don't frown on the fact our past is our past, they trying to invest into the future.Antonio JohnsonCustomer Service ManagerSecond Chance
First, I'd like to extend profound thanks to Mark, Pete, Cari, Gene, Antonio, Brandon, Jess and the entire Second Chance family for sharing their stories, passion and time so generously with us!
In spending time with staff at every level of the organization, I consistently saw two very unique dimensions to Second Chance's culture and leadership:
- A deep, sincere, and consistent concern for others / From Mark and Pete creating new opportunities for growth and development to Antonio and Recycle Will focused on all the guys following in their footsteps, coming home and needing jobs. Antonio has actually started a side business—Antonio's Moving & Hauling—which he leverages to create more earning opportunities for guys during nights and weekends.
- An intentional and practical 'leaning in' during reentry transition / Brandon and Jess talked about needing to go to court 21 times last year to try to regain custody of their kids; Antonio and Will described how probation requirements often feel like a part-time job, like having to take off Tuesdays and Thursdays in order to meet parole officers or take drug tests. Other employers aren't typically that flexible, but Second Chance intentionally builds space and gives grace for that dimension of return.
All in all, this is absolutely one of the grittiest, boldest, most inspiring organizations we have every had the privilege of featuring. There may not be a better way to use your home improvements for world change!
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly