Some peoples’ throwaways are other peoples’ treasures
By Maria Clark
On a recent morning, Joel Frank and Jerome Villanueva were hauling heavy marble slabs from one side of the space to the other, while Janco Damas cleaned and arranged kitchen sinks along the back wall of a large warehouse on a small Morrisania side street.
The three are the new worker-owners at ReBuilders Source, the pioneer effort of Greenworker Cooperatives to rescue construction materials, keeping them out of landfills while providing them at a cut-rate to contractors and home improvement do-it-yourselfers.
When customers walk into the sales section at ReBuilders Source on Timpson Place, they can see paint cans neatly stacked on a table, cabinets organized in another corner and sinks and toilets lined in the back.
Big-ticket items like doors and kitchen cabinets lie alongside them, discount priced by the staff members, who check online to see how much similar products cost elsewhere.
Although their organizing efforts are gradually becoming visible, the three new worker-owners looked to the back room of the space, which was piled high with carpeting and wood slabs, knowing there was still a lot of work to do.
Rebuilders Source is the city’s first worker-owned building materials center. Contractors and residents can walk into the busy warehouse to purchase construction materials at affordable prices.
Villanueva, Damas, and Frank have yet to hire any additional employees, but when they do there will be no hierarchy between worker and owner.
“Everyone is paid the same. Everyone is management,” said Sonia Pichardo, marketing director of the Green Workers Cooperatives, the ecologically-minded nonprofit from which Rebuilders Source originated early in 2008.
Villanueva, Damas and Frank recently took over day-to-day operations in the warehouse after graduating from the Co-op Academy in Hunts Point on July 20. The 16-week program teaches students about environmental issues in the South Bronx, along with the fundamentals of worker cooperatives and customer relations. The previous worker-owners left the company in January.
“As a worker-owner you are hands on, you help out and you get dirty,” said Villanueva, who signed up with the Co-op Academy last September. “Here the community will actually see the owner.”
“The entrepreneurial aspect is truly gratifying. Everyone who works here is also playing an active role,” said Frank.
Villanueva, 26, a Brooklyn native, was searching for work elsewhere when he discovered the Green Workers Co-op Academy by chance.
“When I learned that 99 thousand tons of waste is produced in New York City in three days, I was shocked. Now I’ve even got recycling bins in my nephew’s room,” he said.
Arranging cabinets, stacking marble slabs, and organizing rolls of carpeting are baby steps towards cleaning up the world, says Villanueva.
Damas, 25, who used to work as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers, hopes to use his corporate background to set up a website displaying the company’s inventory that will target small and midsize contractors.
“We expect they won’t find everything here, but they will get some things at discount prices,” said Damas.
In addition to launching a new website, the new owners plan to create their own brand of paint made from dozens of cans of recycled paint ReBuilders Source receives in donations from local contractors.
“We need to encourage responsible disposal of all these materials,” said Damas.
“People who come in here live in the South Bronx. The materials come from all over,” he added. “If we were to leave these materials at their original places they would inevitably be shipped to the South Bronx and they would sit there anyway.”
Joel Frank, 36, who hails from Rockland County and worked previously for environmental and human rights causes, spent years traveling and working–everywhere from Northern Ireland to Antartica, where he assisted scientists with scientific equipment.
“We are looking to do an assignment that is greater than oneself,” he said. “I don’t have to go halfway around the world or to the bottom to make a difference.”
A version of this article appeared in the August edition of the Hunts Point Express.