Picking up the Pieces

Carlyn Blake is making useful products… and people

To locals, Usful Glassworks is a place to drop off used wine and alcohol bottles. To foodies, it’s the place that supplies upcycled drinking glasses to popular restaurants like Fork and Red Feather.

And while both are true, there’s more to it than that.

Wine bottle glass rim polishing
After a wine bottle is cut, it goes through an eight step rim polishing process.

“First and foremost, we help find jobs for people who have employment barriers,” Carlyn Blake, Executive Director of Usful, explains.

In partnership with shelters, fellow nonprofits and refugee agencies, Usful Glassworks provides manufacturing and production experience to at-risk youth, male and female offenders, those with mental or physical disabilities, refugees, veterans and the low-income elderly.

Anyone in need of experience can work at Usful as a volunteer.

“Plenty of volunteers in the building aren’t earning a wage at all, but they’re here to get recent work experience and someone who can professionally recommend them.”

Like the barriers faced by her volunteers, Carlyn had her own to overcome five years ago.

At the time, she was working at KeyBank. “I knew more people in Cleveland [KeyBank’s headquarters] than I did in Boise,” Carlyn says. When the economy took a turn, the job she had known for 19 years was eliminated.

Not long after, Carlyn met Dr. Lisa Scales, a radiologist and founder of Usful Glassworks. Lisa was frustrated. She’d been writing personal checks to keep the nonprofit afloat as well as managing Usful during her off-time. She was about to close the doors.

Instead, Carlyn took the reigns, streamlined the business and has been running the business ever since.

Usful volunteers work the manufacturing line making the glasses, serving trays and various other products.

“If you add up all the shapes and colors of bottles, we have 850 different products we sell.”

Every glass — Coca Cola to Ste. Chapelle to Grey Goose — needs to have the labels removed, cleaned, cut and then put through an eight-step polishing process to get the glass’ signature smooth, shiny (and safe to drink from) rim.

In return, the volunteers working the manufacturing line gain work experience they can list on their resume, which puts them closer to a paid position in the community.

Usful Glassworks volunteer production line

Usful Glassworks production line
The production line can cut, clean, polish and pack 100 wine bottle glasses a day.

“We teach people how to work in a manufacturing and production environment, then we evaluate their work ethic. If they do well, we help them find work.”

“Help” comes in the form of relationships with businesses in the Treasure Valley such as UPS, Packaging Corporation of America, Symms Fruit Ranch, Scentsy and more to provide a path to employment for Usful’s volunteers. “If somebody does really well in a particular area, they have an opportunity to apply for one of these companies,” Carlyn says.

If a volunteer shows up on time and works hard, Usful Glassworks will also provide a professional letter of recommendation. Only 30% of the volunteers receive a letter, but all of them can include the experience gained while working there. “We are pretty stingy with our recommendations because it’s our reputation in the community that’s on the line,” Carlyn says.

But Carlyn strives for Usful Glassworks to be more than a stepping stone.

“We’re not hiring at all, but we want to. We want to be an employer. We want to hire the people who want to work for us.”

She wants to be producing enough glasses to make hiring financially viable.

Various glassware donated to Usful

“With our line today, we can make and sell about 100 glasses a day,” Carlyn explains, “If we can get to the point where we are selling 250 glasses a day, we can actually start hiring the people we’re training.”

To reach that goal, Usful Glassworks — with help from community grants and loans — purchased a fire polisher to automate much of the edge polishing process. Unlike the “cold line” process currently in use, the polisher can produce glasses faster with fewer people. That’s especially important because Usful is finding success beyond Boise with Amazon and gift shops across the country.

Carlyn is quick to point out that automating the process doesn’t mean fewer jobs. Instead, they’ll be able to produce and sell more glasses (currently 60% of the business) while still keeping the “cold line” for the various other glass products volunteers have thought up throughout the years.

“Somebody on the line might come up with a creative idea for a product. We’ll make it and see if it’s something that sells,” says Carlyn. “The hurricane lantern, wine bottle serving tray and the wind chimes are all examples of this.”

Usful Glassworks windchime

Though she lost her job years ago, Carlyn says it was for the best. As a former human resources manager, she is still doing what she loves — helping people find jobs.

“I’m grateful every day that KeyBank kicked me out of that cubicle. I am so grateful they eliminated my job because this is where I need to be.”

Note: Volunteer or learn more about Usful Glassworks at usfulglass.com.


Photography by Chris Ennis

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