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'A Business With a Mission' -- US Nonprofit Accepts No Donations

Finding a job can be extremely difficult for those who are psychologically disabled or recovering from addictions. An unusual business in the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore makes a special effort to offer employment to people on society's edges. Harbor City Services calls itself "a business on a mission." As VOA's June Soh reports, the company seeks no special treatment as it tries to build opportunity for the employees by earning its way in the marketplace. Amy Katz narrates the story.

"I like working here. It is all right. It is not too hard, it is not too easy," says Adrian Brinkley, who has been working for Harbor City Services for six months. "It is something that fits the time in my life right now. It is like God's plan for me to be here."

Adrian has a mental illness, for which he receives medication. So does Joseph McPherson, who started working at Harbor City six years ago.

"Some (people) were surprised. Some didn't think I would be able to work. I am really proud (of myself) because (previously) I didn't think I would be able to work this long..."

Harbor City Services, based in a warehouse in Baltimore, works for other businesses -- managing documents, shredding paper copies that are no longer needed, offering commercial moving and delivery services.

The company does not seem very different from other firms that perform such business services. But one part of Harbor City is unusual -- its work force. Everyone -- more than 50 people, including those who work part-time -- has a psychiatric disability or is a recovering drug abuser.

John Herron, a former university professor and a licensed social worker who also has a master's degree in business, founded the company 20 years ago. He is its chief executive officer.

"A job doesn't cure mental illness and it doesn't cure substance abuses, but it is really hard to recover from those things if you don't have a job,” he says. “A job gives people not just money; it gives them purpose. It captures their need for social life. I think that a job really becomes a necessary part of recovery from any illness."

Harbor City is a "social enterprise" -- a nonprofit business with a social purpose that operates on income it earns, rather than relying on donations, gifts or government grants. The company is committed to hiring people with disabilities, and the only benefit it receives is exemption from taxes.

"Why we don't seek out donations? My answer to people is, 'Don't just give me your money. Give me your business, so I can hire more people and grow the scale.' We need to provide this kind of opportunity to a lot more people," Herron told us.

Harbor City faces an extra challenge as an employer, says Herron. In addition to competing for business, the chief executive has to remain attentive to his workers' needs; in particular, their "relapse potential" -- the possibility of a setback in their recovery from addiction.

Such problems can come to light during the morning group meditation, an important part of each workday at Harbor City Services.

"A lot of societies look on relapse and going to the hospital as failure. We don't [think that way] here. That's the, I think, fundamental difference in the way we operate. We take away the fact that if you get sick, you lose your job. We say, if you get sick, take off for a while and come back to work when you are able."

Sometimes Harbor City's employees are hired away by its customers. That means their talent and stability have been noticed. Herron calls it a success.

Michael Freeman, who was a drug addict, calls himself a success, too. He earned enough trust while working on shed-building projects at Harbor City that he has formed his own business, operating as a subcontractor for Harbor City.

"When you come out from jail, you are marked as a felon. It is very hard to get a job out there in society marked as a felon, because a lot of employers don't want to give you a chance,” explains Freeman. “So I am very grateful to have the job."

Like many other Harbor City Services workers, Freeman says his plan is to be a productive member of society and provide for his family.