“People were losing jobs. Instead, I was given a job. This place, I'm telling you: it’s been a godsend.”
Empriss Ross can’t hide her gratitude for her new role as a pricer in the lighting department at Second Chance. She smiles as she recounts the day last June when she met with Frank White, the Director of Retail Operations, and was hired on the spot.
By all measures, the summer of 2020 was a terrible time to look for a job. The economy was paralyzed by uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Layoffs and hiring freezes were pushing record numbers of individuals out of the workforce, not into it.
But Second Chance was in a unique position. As an organization that hires displaced and unemployed workers, its management team made an early commitment to keeping their whole team on the payroll throughout the pandemic. And, thanks to a combination of good luck and a strong operational model, business was booming. In other words: they were ready to give someone like Empriss the shot she needed.
People that have so much gratitude can be your best workers. You gave it your all to give us a chance. So we're going to give it our all to work hard for you.
Empriss Ross, Pricer
Before that moment, Empriss’ job search had been anything but easy. In 2017, after spending more than seven years incarcerated, she began looking for work to get back on her feet. But she hadn’t held a job since her last stint as a cashier in 2001, and every time a door started to open, the combination of her criminal record and her resume gap would eventually slam it shut.
“I had my charge being held against me. Once they heard [about] that, I felt like I didn't even stand a chance,” she explains.
Empriss happened to be living in Pigtown, just up the street from the Second Chance warehouse. She had passed by many times (it’s hard to miss the bright orange slogan stretching across the entrance: “What is and what can be”) but she assumed it was a construction business that wouldn’t be interested in hiring women.
“When I heard that there were some women working here, I jumped on it,” she recalls. “I had my boyfriend drive me down as soon as I found out. The next day I was here early in the morning.”
Busier Than Ever
When Bittersweet last visited Second Chance in 2018, the 240,000-square-foot facility was buzzing with activity every day of the week. They had single handedly made “deconstruction”—the process of reusing materials from properties slated for demolition—a well-known business practice in the Mid-Atlantic region. They were even working on plans to expand their operation into more cities. But when the pandemic hit, their focus shifted inward.
“We're serving those who [face] significant barriers to employment,” says Pete Theodore, a member of Second Chance’s marketing team, about their decision to rally around their employees. “We know they're hand-to-mouth sometimes. There’s not a lot of reserves to live on."
They began by pivoting to a four-day retail schedule to limit exposure for customers and employees, filling the other three days with safer individual work. They tasked their Director of Safety and Security with optimizing the warehouse and setting policies for social distancing and masks. They even opened a food pantry to ensure their employees could keep themselves and their families fed.
Now, an average day is noticeably quieter. But the speed of secondhand appliances and construction materials flying off the shelves has never been faster; in fact, Second Chance is earning 25% more revenue in four days than it used to earn in seven.
Mark Foster, Second Chance’s Founder and CEO, says they faced a couple slower months before business took off. Then, as people spent more time at home and stimulus checks started hitting bank accounts, home improvement and construction projects became all the rage.
“We count our blessings,” Mark says, “to be included in a group in which the pandemic enhanced our business and provided opportunities for us to continue to employ and add staff.”
Rebuilding and Reimagining
Second Chance’s retail store at 1700 Ridgely Street operates on a grand scale. If not for well-placed maps and the helpful guidance of team members, it would be easy to get lost in the maze of wood flooring, fine art, and second-hand sofas.
There are few items too large or too obscure to find a home here. That’s part of the appeal to donors and customers. But Mark worries that the sheer size of Second Chance’s warehouse blinds visitors to their real mission. He’s committed to spreading the message that giving people and building materials a second chance permanently transforms lives and communities. Mark wants people to internalize that idea—to copy it and apply it to their own businesses.
That’s why, for more than seven years, the Second Chance team has been working on what they call their “Concept House” to spark public interest in deconstruction, second-chance hiring, and reused building materials. They selected a 1,600-square-foot property in Hampton, Maryland that was deconstructed by Second Chance crews in 2013, then lovingly redesigned and rebuilt it with salvaged items from their projects across the Eastern Seaboard. Once complete, the Concept House will represent the full scope of Second Chance’s services. It makes a lofty vision tangible, encouraging physical exploration and stimulating conversations about economic and environmental justice.
“It’s a venue that we can utilize to draw people to see what we've been able to accomplish with these materials,” Mark explains. “And once we have them there, some of our associates will be able to convey some of their own life experiences.”
Mark discovered early on that architecture and history should speak for themselves. While training his first group of reconstruction employees back in 2001, he was focused on the practical tasks at hand. Then one of his trainees grabbed his attention.
“He looked up and said, ‘I'm beginning to look at my city differently,’” Mark recalls. “He was getting connected to the fabric of the community through an understanding that there were people that passed through the same city before him.”
That insight has driven Second Chance’s strategy ever since. Their team is quick to accept any item with a story, no matter how unwieldy, and take on as many reconstruction projects as their capacity will allow. They constantly stumble upon unexpected opportunities to use furniture and salvaged materials to reach wider audiences and connect with their city in new ways.
On our last visit, the star of the show was the original basketball court from the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House. These days, all eyes are on the iconic 1951 Domino sign, donated by the sugar company to Second Chance as it plans an energy-efficient replacement. After sitting with the 20-foot steel letters for a few weeks, one of Second Chance’s project managers realized that they could be used to spell “Go O’s”. The Baltimore Orioles caught wind of the concept and loved it; now they’re working together to relight and unveil the salvaged sign at Camden Yards next spring.
Second Chance’s continued success throughout a challenging year looks great on paper. But the human impact of that growth comes to life when you speak with team members like Antonio Johnson. When we met Antonio in 2018, he was already a 10-year Second Chance veteran and team leader, excited to take his destiny into his own hands after spending most of his late teens and twenties imprisoned. Since then, he’s continued to move up the Second Chance ranks to the position of Sales Manager, and his ambition is bearing fruit outside of work, too.
In 2019, through an employee buying program at Second Chance, Antonio had the opportunity to secure an affordable salvaged home in West Baltimore. Second Chance also gave him access to the resources necessary to deconstruct and rebuild the property.
I don't have too much background, or too much to say I can claim, but they gave me an opportunity to claim something. They give us the opportunity to come in and deconstruct material. [Then] they give us the opportunity to construct lives.
Antonio Johnson, Sales Manager
In 2020, he officially launched Antonio’s Moving and Hauling, a venture he uses to serve Second Chance customers and others in the Baltimore area while generating more income for himself and his peers.
“I have shirts that say ‘Antonio's Moving and Hauling,’ and I always wear them,” he says emphatically. “I'm always out and about talking to everyone. I'll go to Home Depot, pass out cards. Lowe's, pass out cards. I go to warehouses, pass out cards, get to know the staff and what's going on.”
Antonio typically employs up to three team members for regular jobs around town; he’s employed up to eight people at a time for larger moving projects.
A day job and a side hustle might be plenty of work for most people, but Antonio is committed to making the most of the second chance he’s been given. That’s why, during our recent conversation, he was eager to talk at length about his next milestone: earning a degree in HR and counseling after his wife completes nursing school.
“I’m 43 years old. Time is flying,” Antonio explains. “I just want to be a resource for human beings and give them the opportunity to be something.”
Most Second Chance employees—including Empriss and Antonio—are quick to admit their own mistakes. There’s no hiding from it; the team’s culture revolves around radical transparency. But when they share their stories, another theme quickly emerges: that the biggest barriers to their success were rarely of their own design.
The staff of Second Chance in 2018.
That’s why Tyree Crawford, a sales associate at Second Chance, can talk for hours about the nuances of the criminal justice system. He made some poor decisions as a young man—but then he was incarcerated 45 years on a life sentence he never should have received.
As a child in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of South Baltimore, Tyree dropped out of school.
“I thought that the streets...could offer me more than education could,” he remembers. “And I found out the hard way that it wasn’t so.”
In the 1970s Tyree picked up a six-year prison sentence for robbery. While incarcerated, he was falsely accused of killing a fellow inmate and given a life sentence. He spent the next few decades in prison, working in the law library and learning everything he could to help himself and others in similar situations. Tyree estimates that he has worked with as many as 1,000 fellow inmates to better understand their cases and develop legal strategies to address unjust sentences.
His own circumstances didn’t change until 2012, when Maryland’s highest court determined in Unger v. State that hundreds of individuals still serving life sentences—including Tyree—had been denied due process in their trials.
Following the ruling, and after a multi-year battle to officially overturn his conviction, Tyree was finally released on August 2, 2019—a 63-year-old with newfound freedom but no safety net.
When you've been through what I've been through, you appreciate a second chance. Especially when nobody else is willing to give it to you.
Tyree Crawford, Sales Associate
Tyree got connected with Mark and the Second Chance team, and he was hired for his first role in April 2020, just as the world began grappling with the arrival of COVID-19. He describes the training process as a “gauntlet,” but smiles as he recalls it. New hires like Tyree start by shadowing current team members. Instead of reading dense employee handbooks, they’re expected to observe, adapt, and give it a shot. Though nervous, Tyree wasn’t daunted; he had used his time behind bars to cultivate his character and resilience.
“Pressure can either bust pipes or it can create diamonds,” Tyree asserts. “It can either bring out the worst in you or bring out the best in you. I determined, ‘I'm allowing this pressure, the stress of being incarcerated, to bring out the best in me.’”
At Second Chance, he flourished. He learned how to cultivate his social skills, picked up customer service techniques, and developed his own style of salesmanship.
Now more than a year into his new role, Tyree is already looking for ways to help at-risk youth avoid taking a path like he did. He and his girlfriend are in the process of creating a nonprofit organization to train children as motivational speakers. Tyree envisions a movement of youth addressing their own peers, encouraging each other to set positive trajectories for their lives.
A Flourishing Family
A place like Second Chance can’t operate like a traditional business. New team members usually have limited work experience and are processing plenty of trauma. In response, the leadership team has learned to rely on a combination of hard work, collaboration, and compassion.
Those values apply at every level of the organization. Case in point: the hands-on onboarding Tyree experienced isn’t unique to team members starting in the warehouse. Clayton Shelhoss, Second Chance’s Chief Operating Officer, who was hired in 2019, remembers his first day much the same way.
“Mark said, ‘Okay, come on down. But I'm going to tell you right now, don't do anything. Just observe,” Clayton recounts.
Second Chance isn’t the kind of place that rewards armchair experts or individual ambition. Clayton describes it instead as a level playing field built on shared responsibility.
Empriss uses a different analogy to explain Second Chance’s secret sauce: “We call each other family here. There's no greater feeling than people working with you and encouraging you to make it further and advance.”
That strategy is more important than ever, as Second Chance continues to grow to include more than 250 family members at any given time. Mark estimates that as many as 20,000 employees have passed through their warehouse doors in the past two decades. And he’s not planning to slow down anytime soon.
When Second Chance was founded, concepts like deconstruction and second chance hiring were fringe ideas at best. Today, as they gather momentum in the national discourse, Mark hopes to see Second Chance—and organizations like it—reuse more materials and rebuild more lives.
“The younger generation is coming up and saying, ‘We need to be more mindful,’” Mark observes, “and I think that's a good thing for all of us.”