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Salvage Firm Reclaims Past, Builds Futures

Workers from Second Chance remove all usable material from a log cabin scheduled to be torn down. (J. Taboh/VOA)
A deconstruction crew is removing all of the usable material from a two-story log cabin which is scheduled to be torn down. The men work for a nonprofit organization in Baltimore, Maryland, which specializes in salvaging windows, appliances and people's lives.

Second Chance, Inc. resells materials from buildings which are slated to be demolished. The company hires and trains the most disadvantaged members of the community to do the work, giving both the workers, and the material, a second chance.

Second chances

At the cabin in a quiet neighborhood near Washington, D.C., the Second Chance crew carefully extracts the wood floors and wall panels, removing the interior doors and frames, the kitchen cabinets and all the kitchen and bathroom appliances.

“We’re giving new life to older material which may in a lot of cases wind up in a dump and never be reused,” says Jim Russell, project manager for Second Chance.

While the business gives materials a second chance, it also believes in giving people that opportunity as well. The nonprofit uses sites like this to train people in the art of deconstruction.

Russell says the workers have faced challenges in life and often just need a helping hand.

"They come to Second Chance for that opportunity,” he says.“We bring people in and teach them a skill to enable them to learn a little bit about construction; the way a house is built,” says Russell. “And if you know how it’s built, you know how to take it down properly, safely.”

New beginnings

Clarence White, one of the men hired and trained to do this delicate work, is learning how to safely and skillfully remove the lumber and stone, and take apart the kitchen and bathrooms.

For White, working with Second Chance has been a life-changing experience.

“Beforehand I was selling drugs, doing all the wrong things," he says. "I went to prison, I came home and was looking for a job and a lot of jobs weren’t hiring me. Second Chance provided that opportunity. They believed in me and I went from not feeling confident, feeling like I can’t get a job, I cannot do this, I cannot do that, feeling limited, to feeling limitless.”

In addition to job training, the company also provides life skills workshops.
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White has opened a bank account and moved into his own place. But more importantly he says, “I’m able to provide for my daughter and give her a better life.”

Another benefit for the men working at Second Chance is the bond that’s created between those who have gone through similar life challenges, and the feeling of camaraderie that has generated.

“I love working with all these guys," says Joshua Watson, who's been working at Second Chance for nine months. "They’re like brothers. I’m going to get married in a couple of months and all these guys are going to be my groomsmen.”

New foundations

Once the men have completed their 16-week training program they are guaranteed a job with the company. However, according to project manager Jim Russell, many move on to other opportunities.
The Second Chance Warehouse in Baltimore, Maryland, contains everything from doors and floors to furnishings and other household items reclaimed from homes slated to be restored, renovated or demolished. (J. Taboh/VOA)
The Second Chance Warehouse in Baltimore, Maryland, contains everything from doors and floors to furnishings and other household items reclaimed from homes slated to be restored, renovated or demolished. (J. Taboh/VOA)

“We’ve got guys who have become apprentice electricians, some of them have gone on to become truck drivers, some of them have come to me and asked me for guidance on maybe starting their own home improvement business, and if I can help them out in any way, I try to.”

But the task at hand today at the log cabin is to prepare the first stack of materials to be shipped out.

Eventually, the wood flooring, wall panels and doors, along with kitchen and bathroom appliances, will be trucked to the Second Chance warehouse in Baltimore. They will join chandeliers, antiques and small household items to be sold at a big discount to people looking to renovate a room or build an entire house.

Those sales help fund the job training program.

Mark Foster, the founder and president of Second Chance, which has trained more than five dozen men since it began in 2003, believes his employees recognize this may be their best chance at a new life.

“The training program here is not just about how to pull nails,” he says. “It’s about how to be a productive member of society, how to get some skill sets that you wouldn’t have had before.”

“Materials are certainly important to us as a society,” adds Foster, “but the people are really the thing that should drive us the most, giving those people opportunities that they otherwise wouldn't have.”

As the last of the log cabin is removed to make way for a new home to be built, Clarence White looks forward to building on the foundation of his new life.

"I can see myself being a happy old man one day,” he says. “Before I couldn’t see it; now I see it. It’s a good thing. It’s a great thing.”