Business approach funds St. Paul nonprofit mission: Getting recovering addicts back in the job market


Katherine just landed a customer service job that will pay $12 to $15 an hour and she is elated.

And Katherine, 50, faced a lot more obstacles than most job seekers in the down economy. For one, she is a recovering heroin addict working to stay clean. For another, she did prison time for being part of a counterfeit check operation—a felony conviction she had to disclose to potential employers.

“In this economy, if you are focused and determined—and you are persistent about not getting caught up in the excuse of it being the economy—you can make it,” she said. “To quote my pastor, ‘Potential is nothing but potential without motivation.’”

Katherine (she asked not to use her last name) also had some valuable assets in her job search, including nearly six months spent at ReBuild Resources. ReBuild is a St. Paul nonprofit employment program whose mission is to help people in recovery get back on their feet with a job. At any given time, it employs 15 to 25 workers like Katherine.

President Kevin Lynch said jobs are a way to break the cycle of addiction and poverty. “A job provides self worth, housing, health care and a reference,” he said.

ReBuild is a $2.3 million annual operation with two lines of business: contract manufacturing and custom apparel and promotions. It does everything from silk screening t-shirts to assembling air filters. Katherine operated a machine that custom embroidered ball caps.

Tucked along Prior Avenue north of University Avenue, ReBuild competes with for-profit businesses. Customers for its custom apparel and promotions work include Medtronic, ConAgra Foods, Minnesota Public Radio and Target, according to its printed materials.

The current term of art for nonprofits such as ReBuild is “social enterprise,” which means that they use moneymaking ventures to support their core work.

ReBuild’s mission of helping recovering addicts get job skills can open the door to potential customers. Lynch said. The mission can be a tiebreaker in getting a new contract, “but you have to be a good business,” he said.

A brief history

The program will hit its 25th anniversary this fall. It started in 1984, the brainchild of Fred Myers and his friend, the late Bob Hare. Myers, in recovery himself since 1971, said they saw too many people come and go from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, lacking education, work history and support. They wanted to create a safe, supportive and sober workplace for people in halfway houses. In the beginning, the company’s work included parting out forklifts and later rebuilding them, hence the ReBuild name—the program rebuilt equipment and people’s lives.

Myers worked for a Zeigler Caterpillar dealer, which contributed both money and equipment to the project. Myers got help from Control Data and others, even selling $50 “shares” in the nonprofit to friends at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina. In return, they got, “the satisfaction of turning lives around,” he said.

Like many nonprofits, its strategies have evolved. For instance, they didn’t start silk screening until the early 1990s. (Their first contract was the Minnesota Twins World Series victory t-shirts, Myers said.)

The ReBuild leaders

Kevin Lynch, president of ReBuild Resources, recently co-authored a book called Mission Inc.: A practitioner’s guide to social enterprise. It explores 10 paradoxes of running a nonprofit organization with a business focus. The paradoxes include Doing Good vs. Doing Well, Do-Gooders vs. Good Doers and Metrics vs. Instinct.

Fred Myers is retired and no longer involved in the day-to-day work of ReBuild, but he is still active in trying to help people in recovery. About 18 months ago, he helped start and is now president of Sober Corps, a group dedicated to helping people achieve their first year of freedom from chemical addiction through life skills mentorship, training and networking.”

Lynch took over leadership in 2003 and since then has tried to improve the nonprofit’s business practices, he said. Currently, it generates 72 percent of its revenue through business contracts. It fills in the rest with grants, individual donations and special events fundraising.

Among the changes Lynch made was setting a six-month time limit for people to work at ReBuild, he said. Before, people could stay indefinitely. “It was too comfortable,” he said. “People thought a minimum wage job was the best they could aspire to.”

Applicants have to have at least 60 days of treatment and be actively working a recovery program before ReBuild will consider hiring them. They start earning just above minimum wage and are eligible for raises at 30, 60 and 90 days. Employees not only have work quotas to meet, but they also have a Forward Motion contract with ReBuild outlining what work they will do towards sobriety, self sufficiency and service. ReBuild’s work environment supports sobriety through such efforts as weekly on-site Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Of the agency’s 12 permanent staff, seven are ReBuild graduates. “They create stability, but more importantly role models and mentors,” Lynch said.

Myers said he’s just glad ReBuild is still running after a quarter century. “There are a lot of nonprofits geared to private sector ideas,” he said. It’s tough to survive these big ups and downs.”

Finding a job

Roughly 80 percent of the ReBuild workers are in the same shoes as Katherine—trying to land a job in spite of a criminal record, Lynch said. For prospective employers, convictions are a red flag and an easy screen to eliminate applicants.

Adrian’s story is one small example. Adrian, 46, got hired at ReBuild in a roundabout way. He had bought himself a one-way ticket from Florida to Hazelden to get treatment for his alcohol and cocaine addiction. He had a good job at the Orlando International Airport, but said if he didn’t change his life, he was going to die. “It was just a matter of time.”

After Hazelden, he moved to a sober house. He lined up a sales job for a building supply company. Adrian said the company withdrew the job offer because of his record of possession (1985) and driving under the influence (1991). As mad as he was, it turned out to be a blessing. The next day he got a call from ReBuild and an offer for an interview.

According to ReBuild, 54 people left the program in 2008. Of those, 28 found jobs, more than half the total. Ten left voluntarily; six were terminated for cause; four hit the six-month time limit and four either relapsed or went to jail.

ReBuild provides supports to help workers find permanent jobs, including on-site classes (for which they get paid) and help from a job coach. Workers don’t start the job search until they have been there 60 days. That gives people like Adrian a chance to settle in.

Adrian started June 12. “The work here is not exhausting mentally, necessarily,” he said. “But it is about focusing and making sure I am putting out quality work.”

His dream is to eventually get a job at the Mayo Clinic.

Katherine was getting close to her six-month limit when she got the call about her job. She, too, had an earlier setback. Before getting her most recent job offer, she was close to getting a different job. She went through three interviews. She disclosed her felony record, and the company retracted its offer. “It was OK. It stung a little,” she said. “I felt it wasn’t the place for me.”

Katherine hadn’t yet signed her new contract. She was scheduled to fill out the paperwork the next day. “I am just on top of the world right now,” she said.

Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999. Email:

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