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June 20, 2008

Success Stories Fuel Social Enterprise

In times of constantly streaming bad news -- a stalling economy, gas prices inching ever-closer to $5/gallon, donations slumping -- we all need a little good news to cling to. For those of us at Materials Matter and no doubt other social enterprises, we are driven by success stories. It’s the success stories that we work for, because each one is a building block in our larger mission. The fact that each success is the culmination of months, sometimes years of plodding work, makes them that much more satisfying.

When our Board of Directors voted in early 2007 to expand our services to include more nonprofit agencies, one of the intentions was to begin doing more to supply materials to builders of emergency shelter and transitional housing. By autumn, we started a mutual courtship with HomeAid, a national nonprofit leader in building and rehabbing shelter and transitional housing for the homeless. With an impressive track-record of working with local agencies to build shelter for over 80,000 individuals and headquarters close by in Orange County, CA, HomeAid seemed like a natural fit.

We were soon paired with HomeAid San Diego to conduct a sort of pilot program. We met in January and reviewed their upcoming projects and, looking at the constraints of planning time, selected an upcoming project to help with. Led by the Interfaith Community Services in Escondido, the Veteran’s Project involved rehabbing apartment units to serve as transitional housing for homeless veterans. Many of the units would need to be outfitted for handicap accessibility, and the budget was tight. We agreed to aggressively pursue material donations for them, believing five months was plenty of time.

By early May, we were scrambling. Many of the manufacturers and distributors we partner with that typically have excess to donate had been tightening their belts, making their companies more efficient as a strategy for weathering the economic downturn. But we posted up the project plans on the wall and kept heart, making call after call to track down donations. It was the company RSI that finally came through for us in a big way, contributing medicine cabinets, light bars, vanity tops, and storage cabinets. We were also able to get a hold of handicap accessible shower stalls, which retails for thousands of dollars, and donations of faucets, garbage disposals, paint and supplies, and electrical supplies. All in all we pulled together $30,000 in materials and two weeks ago, we sent a truckload of materials and supplies down.

Our staff had already moved on to “the next”: other projects, other needs. And then our truck driver returned from the delivery with tears in his eyes. The staff of the Interfaith Community Services had gathered around to watch the unloading of materials at the site. Each unloading of another palette brought another round of applause. For a man who spends most of his days in warehouses driving forklifts, it was a touching reminder of why he worked for Materials Matter, and as he passed the success story along we all felt that thing you are supposed to feel doing this work: that swelling in your chest. That warm feeling brought on by generosity. That faith in people, and that faith in fighting to help the most vulnerable.

In the week that followed, our office received some humbling thank you letters. The Veteran’s Project is now in its final stages of completion. Hundreds of homeless veterans will receive housing assistance there, many of whom returned recently from Afghanistan and Iraq having lost their homes and their families and just need a place to get their feet back on the ground. It’s easy to forget why we struggle to run a nonprofit organization, and why we work so hard to run a social enterprise to make that nonprofit successful. Thanks to the Veteran’s Project in Oceanside, we now have the soul-fuel to continue on.