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Portland nonprofit helps workers overcome employment barriers, secure affordable housing

COURTESY: TRACI SHAW/RELAY RESOURCES - Milson Cruz, an employee with Relay Resources, works in the warehouse on the nonprofits northeast Portland campus packing products and shipping orders for a list of clients that includes footwear-maker Danner and Portland-based Aardvark Sauce.

Michael Best just wanted to find a good-paying job with a steady future.

He'd worked as a short-order cook, a dishwasher and even a flagger for a window cleaning company. But none of those jobs had ever paid enough so that he could stop relying on disability benefits — something he dreamed of doing.

"It's like this idea of living versus existing," said Best, who is disabled. "You can exist (on disability benefits), but you're not really living."

Then he connected with Relay Resources.

A Portland nonprofit, Relay Resources provides job training and employment for adults with disabilities or other barriers to employment at mainstream companies.

Some of the organization's employees, for example, work at public facilities, through contracts with federal, state and local governments. After joining Relay Resources, for example, Best worked as a janitor at a county law enforcement training facility and at Portland International Airport before moving into positions with the nonprofit as a job coach and a trainer.

Others work in Relay Resources' food processing and shipping and packing divisions located on the organization's campus on Northeast 148th Avenue.

The nonprofit also owns and operates affordable housing complexes. While that effort started in 1999 with the purchase of a single existing complex in Portland, the nonprofit has gone on to build new income-restricted housing with development partner Home First Development. The most recent of those projects, the Juniper and Huckleberry apartment complexes on Portland's eastside, broke ground late last month.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Viktor Pipchenko cuts insoles that will be inserted into Danner boots at Relay Resources.

Beginning with its first affordable housing project, the Snowberry, Relay Resources made a commitment to build highly sustainable complexes. The newest buildings, for example, will feature quality finishes and energy-efficient windows and appliances, according to Tiffini Mueller, the nonprofit's vice president of marketing and communications.

"Because we're the owner and the operator, we are equally incentivized to build quality structures," she said. "We're choosing the materials in a smart, sustainable, long-term way."

That commitment to quality and sustainability extends to every other aspect of the organization, and it's something that is increasingly drawing companies with like-mindsets and business philosophies to enter into partnerships with Relay Resources. For example, Portland-based bambu, which exhibits its commitment to operate for the greater good with a designation as a B Corp-certified company, recently selected Relay Resources and its employees to handle the company's packaging operations.

"Being a B Corp., we felt it made sense to work with an organization that was in the community —and helping people in the community at-large," bambu co-owner Jeff Delkin said.

Filling a need

Relay Resources traces its roots back to 1951, when a group of mothers of disabled children decided to open a school called Portland Children's Center to serve kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"This was back at a time when there really weren't places in public schools or other programs for kids with those types of disabilities. So, we filled that need," Mueller said.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Marta Guzman helps put together science kits for Yellow Scope at Relay Resources.

As special education programs emerged and schools began to change their approaches to serving students with disabilities, the children's center also shifted its focus — and its name — to providing jobs and training for adults with disabilities.

"As (students) moved out of the school system, we realized they needed a place to go," Mueller said.

The nonprofit made use of federal and state programs that created jobs for people with disabilities through set-aside contracts for certain types of work needed by public agencies and facilities that organizations like Relay Resources could provide.

The programs allowed the nonprofit to build two solid divisions that still provide a large number of jobs for Relay Resources' employees. The building services arm provides janitorial services for clients like the airport and landscaping services for clients that include the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Courthouse. The second branch provides office solutions — shredding, scanning, document storage — for clients such as the Internal Revenue Service.

While government contracts helped sustain the nonprofit, the organization also realized there were opportunities to grow. Several years ago, the organization decided to move into the business-to-business (B2B), private marketplace by embracing what Mueller describes as a "make it, pack it, store it, ship it" approach.

"That includes, essentially, putting anything in anything and then storing and shipping it," she said.

Food for thought

Relay Resources began its foray into the B2B world by first focusing on packaging and shipping services, which are housed in a spacious warehouse on the nonprofit's campus.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Relay Resources employee Nue Ching Cha helps straighten out clothes hangers for client Aramark.

A display on a ledge in the building's main entry area features products the organization handles for clients with nationally and globally recognized names. Danner, for example, has a contract with Relay Resources to die-cut soles for the company's footwear, package boot laces and re-box returned items. Uniform company Aramark drops off wire clothes hangers, 400 per stack, which Relay Resources' employees then straighten or recycle, depending on the condition of each hanger.

But a large portion of the clients tapping the organization's warehouse services are smaller operations, many with Portland roots.

"A lot of (companies) that we work with now aren't necessarily just out of the garage, but they're somewhere in that middle zone," Mueller said. "Most of our customers are entrepreneurial, fairly new to the market, ready to scale. That's food and non-food."

Portland-based sauce company Secret Aardvark, for example, taps Relay Resources for storage and shipping of its bottled products. Another local business, Yellow Scope, hires the organization's employees to build the company's science kits for girls, all of which are assembled by hand.

The newest division of Relay Resources' B2B efforts is a food co-packing business unit, which focuses on dry foods only and is located in a back area of a main building that also houses administrative services.

"Our sweet spot is salts, grains, tea," Mueller said. "You can imagine ... any customer who wants their raw material put into a container."

In one room, for example, uniformed workers wearing hair nets, booties and gloves move trays of hazelnuts from a bulk bin to a machine that removes the shells. Other similarly garbed employees weigh clear plastic bags filled with hazelnuts before still more employees make sure the bags are sealed and labels added. In a separate area, an employee moves boxes of packed products ready for shipping.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Hazelnuts are sorted and packaged in Relay Resources food processing facility.

The food production facility, which also offers relabeling services, and the non-food warehouse space total 150,000 square feet. A third building on the campus contains equipment used for the organization's landscaping services.

Training ground

The expansion in the B2B market allowed the organization to open up the pool of people it employs to include anyone who faces barriers to employment. In addition to employees with disabilities, the B2B division now employs people who speak English as a second language. Others are refugees. Still others have been formerly incarcerated.

People who have faced barriers to employment are referred to Relay Resources through a range of sources and programs. Potential employees meet with the nonprofit's staff to discuss their experience with previous jobs or careers and outline their interests and goals, from obtaining employment to securing housing. Once they're hired, they enter a training program for the specific type of work they'll do. Many employees find working with the organization offers opportunities to move up the employment ladder.

After Michael Best had spent a couple of years as a janitor, he had built his skills and confidence to a level that he decided he was ready to apply for position first as a job coach and then as a trainer. He now spends his days helping newbies at Relay Resources learn the finer points of working in the janitorial division, including secrets for cleaning mirrors without streaks.

His own experience with the challenges that come with learning a new job often come in handy. When he started his training for janitorial work, one of his trainers told him the work was physically tough. Best soon learned the trainer was right, but he also was determined to succeed. He often shares those experiences with his trainees, including showing them the seat in a restroom at the airport where he was sitting when he decided that no matter how tired he was or how challenging the work might be, he wasn't going to give up.

Looking at how far he's come since that day, he's glad he decided to stick with the job.

"This is the first time in my life that I can genuinely say I love what I do," Best said. "I get to help other people who are coming off of whatever their situation is ... and now I get to share with them all those things that I learned and help to push them forward — in the same way that I got help when I started here."

Center stage

Even with its positive programs and results, Relay Resources' name and mission aren't widely known in Portland. So, the organization is working to change that.

The nonprofit has long been financially self-sustaining, which has allowed it to grow its programs. But with an eye toward being able to create even more job opportunities for those with employment challenges, the organization is starting a fund-raising program that will include corporate sponsorships and corporate giving opportunities, Mueller said.

The organization also is starting to promote itself to more companies with B Corp certification, a status given to businesses that have proven a commitment to conduct business in a way that benefits the greater good.

"We really like to work with B Corp-minded-type customers because they really love what we do," Mueller said.

That common mindset is what first attracted the owners of bambu to Relay Resources. The Portland company manufactures sustainable utensils and household wares, all made from bamboo and other green materials.

Since opening in 2003, company co-founders Jeff Delkin and Rachel Speth have split their time between their headquarters in Portland and China, where they source their materials. Having to travel to California, where the company's packaging operations were located, was less than convenient.

When Delkin and Speth heard about Relay Resources' packaging services, they were interested. Relocating a packaging operation isn't a decision made lightly, but a visit to the nonprofit's warehouse that included meeting supervisors and employees and a chance to see the generous solar array on the roof of the building helped seal the deal.

"We were really impressed with the facility, especially the cleanliness and the level of attention we immediately saw," Delkin said. "The people who work there clearly love what they're doing."

While the switchover hasn't been entirely smooth, Delkin still feels confident the move to Relay Resources was the right step, and he said he and Speth are looking forward to eventually work with the nonprofit to expand the services it provides for bambu.

"With any kind of transition, the first part can be a little clunky," Delkin said. "Our first week was clunky, but everyone's intention was honest in asking what they could do to (improve the process)."


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