BOISE — Every Friday, Carlyn Blake pays someone to drive through Canyon County’s scenic Sunnyslope Wine Trail with one aim — collecting empty bottles.

Not just a case or two here and there, she said. The driver brings back about 600 to 1,200 wine bottles per run.

Bottles from commercial donations — some from wineries in Caldwell such as Huston Vineyards and Ste. Chapelle Winery — make up 70 percent of the bottles that come through the door of Usful Glassworks, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 to fulfill two needs in the Treasure Valley community.

The first was to help those who are homeless, veterans, refugees, felons or other low-income wage earners gain experience and job skills training to hold down employment and get back on their feet. The second was to find a better solution to the difficulty of recycling glass in Ada and Canyon counties.

But now, after seven years of turning discarded wine, liquor and soda bottles into custom, usable glassware, Usful Glassworks has a need of its own — raise $250,000 to cover operating costs.

Blake, the executive director of Usful, said the organization is at a crossroads. Either the organization raises the money through its All In Crusade fundraiser to help pay for eight to 10 much-needed positions, such as an office manager, program manager and production manager, or possibly cease to exist. Blake said Usful Glassworks simply cannot function in its current capacity.

If the money isn’t raised by May 5, Usful may even have to close its doors completely.

“I love this organization,” Blake said. “I want it to be sustainable. I think we’re making a difference. That’s why we need this one-time influx of money for key, critical positions for one year.”

USFUL GETS ITS START

In 2008, Dr. Lisa Scales, a Boise-based radiologist, was frustrated. She was frustrated that women coming out of prison were unable to find steady work, and she was frustrated there wasn’t an easy solution to recycling glass in the Treasure Valley.

So she purchased a 2,000-square-foot space on Chinden Boulevard in Garden City and bought some equipment, setting the foundation for the start of Usful Glassworks.

Now in an expanded 10,000-square-foot space on Franklin Road in Boise, Usful has cut and re-purposed 420,000 bottles, reducing the stream of glass being dumped in a landfill.

That’s one of the main reasons Huston Vineyards owner Mary Alger said she donates bottles to Usful.

She said she would be saddened to see Usful close because it would force her to find another recycling outlet. She also respects the good work the nonprofit does in the community.

“It’s been a concern of mine because I do think that they provide a good format for retraining people,” she said.

Usful has provided 350 people with job training to teach skills such as inventory management, quality control, production management and even punctuality and appearance.

It takes two to three months to make it through the program, and participants must also show they have the skills and commitment to earn a letter of recommendation, Blake said.

“If they’re not going to be a good employee,” Blake said, “I’m not going to recommend them for a job. That’s my reputation on the line in the employment community.”

Those who enter the jobs training program and meet its strict guidelines receive a letter of recommendation and connections to job placement with Usful’s partners in the community.

“That letter of recommendation is at the heart of what we do,” Blake said. “That’s who we are and why we’re here.”

Ste. Chapelle started donating its bottles to Usful about three years ago and has purchased several of its products for the winery’s tasting rooms, including its water pitchers, said Chantelle Lusebrink, spokeswoman for Ste. Chapelle.

“Usful Glassworks is an incredibly impactful organization in our community, and graduates of its program are prepared for full-time employment after attending,” Lusebrink stated in an email. “In a time when funding for community programs and the environment are struggling, programs like Usful Glassworks are key keeping our community moving forward.”

FULFILLING A NEED

Chuck Culverhouse moved to Idaho from Anaheim, California, to be closer to his son four years ago, with little in his pocket.

A U.S. Navy veteran, he found himself homeless and living at the Boise Rescue Mission’s River of Life shelter. With the help of a local Veterans Affairs office, he was able to be connected with Usful Glassworks and started working part time.

“I liked it so much, I was working and getting paid 18 to 20 hours a week and was volunteering the other 20 (hours),” Culverhouse said.

He said Blake saw something in him and his work, and he was hired to work at Usful. He was even able to secure an apartment. Now he helps oversee some of the production line at the nonprofit.

Culverhouse said he is one of many people who wouldn’t be where they are today if Usful hadn’t taken a chance on someone who was down on his luck.

“If I could just show everyone the products we do here, and I could show them, ‘Hey, I made that glass and it’s going out into the world,’ they would see I’m proud of it,” he said. “And the good Lord willing, someone will buy it.”

Blake said Usful has been able to hire the equivalent of three-and-a-half people under its current model. But that level of staffing is not enough to meet the demand for its products or management of its healthy stream of volunteers and job-training participants.

Orders that flow in from dozens of states, and businesses and individuals throughout Ada and Canyon counties, aren’t the problem.

And while nonprofits can always use more volunteers and laborers, Blake said manpower isn’t the nonprofit’s dilemma, either.

“Even though I have the machines sitting here, and I have more orders on the boards than we can get to, I don’t have the wages to hire more people to run and manage those things,” Blake said. “We have to be able to operate like a production and management company because we are one.”

Blake said she is open to any solution to keeping Usful’s doors open, including merging with another jobs training program in the Treasure Valley, simplifying the number of products people can order or seeking other sponsorships or donations to stay afloat.

They’re not expecting all $250,000 to come from the GoFundMe page, Blake said. She’s actively asking Usful’s partners and other foundations in the community to donate, as well. So far, the GoFundMe All In Crusade page has raised nearly $13,000.

“It is heartwarming when people donate even $20 because you know the community does support us and wants us to survive,” she said. “We are pursuing all options.”

Christina Lords is the assistant editor. Contact her at clords@idahopress.com or follow her on Twitter @IPTLords.

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