Wood That Works

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“What would you work for?” It’s the question LA-based organization Would-Works asks local homeless people people every day.

The answer—new eyeglasses, a bus pass, first month’s rent—is no plea for charity; it’s a goal. Enabling them to achieve it, Would-Works transforms these people into contracted artisans. Their craft? Hand-finishing and packaging the maple and oak cutting boards you see today on Fab.

Rewind to 2009: the heart of the recession. Determined to help curb the rising poverty rates, Connor Johnson volunteers with AmeriCorps in his current home of Los Angeles, and makes some fascinating friends along the city’s infamously impoverished Skid Row. He shares in their hopes and sympathizes with their fears. Many of them are casualties of the economy, unable to work in spite of their best efforts. “I would work if I could,” they tell him.

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Johnson goes swiftly to the drawing board (or in this case, cutting board). Rather than starting a charity to appeal to the fortunate few, he launches a social enterprise, enlisting the willing and able individuals at his doorstep.

Would-Works addresses an immediate need—a necessity we take for granted, like public transportation or a health checkup. After defining this need and going through orientation and training, the individual gets to work, with peer-to-peer mentoring from an established artisan. When the necessary hours are completed, Would-Works cuts a check directly toward the stated goal.image

Yet the process inevitably transcends this mission, as it breeds an enduring sense of confidence, camaraderie, and hope as the artisans become certified in basic work skills. Often, Johnson endorses them for future employment—personally, and with pride.

I had the pleasure of speaking with a current Would-Works artisan. Meet James.

Tell me a little bit about your life before you joined Would-Works.

I was in Kansas City for 20 years. I was working and got married, but lost my job, and got caught in a cycle of getting jobs, losing jobs. I lost my house and eventually my wife. I became homeless.

My sister called me and said my mother was sick, so I came here to Los Angeles. My Mom passed away, and I got back into the same thing—being homeless. I truly had nowhere to live. And it’s very difficult for me to find work because I have back and knee injuries. I was homeless for over a year before I found Would-Works.

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How did that start?

I heard about it though the social service agency that was helping me look for work in exchange for housing. I began working there in December. My goal was to earn a deposit and first month’s rent toward an apartment, as well as some little items for the house. I moved in yesterday!

James is speaking to me from his new apartment.

What is your day like at Would-Works?

I work there on Saturdays for an average of 6 hours. It’s always a therapeutic experience, both personally and because of the companionship.

Do you see yourself as an artisan now, and perhaps in the future?

Absolutely—I love using my hands. It’s like therapy to me.

You’ve accomplished an incredibly ambitious goal. What is your next goal?

I want to see my grandbabies—to have them in my new home. I have 8 here and 7 in Missouri. I want to see them all here at once.

Will you have one of these boards to show them?

Yes m’am, I’m getting ready to get one.

Do you see yourself staying with Would-Works?

Absolutely. I’m continuing to work with them as they grow. I see them growing and I want to be a part of it.

In spite of our crackling phone connection, James’ voice is steady and strong. Johnson tells me that, though humble, James immediately took on a leadership role in work sessions. In his new role at Would-Works, he will supervise and mentor incoming artisans, guiding them toward the success he has proven possible.

His is the story ingrained within every hand-finished board. Consider it a little slice of humanity for your countertop.

-Kate Canary

Photography by Colleen Rafferty, Blue Square Films

To see more of Would-Works’ beautiful products, check out our sale.