By Rhonda Van Pelt
Many of us recycle paper, cans and bottles, and feel proud of ourselves. Blue Star Recyclers is waaay ahead in the “something to be proud of” sweepstakes — this nonprofit recycles people.
CEO Bill Morris likes to say he was one of the first to benefit from the program he co-founded in November 2009. He was laid off from his telecom job in 2002 and ran his own business for four years, but he was looking for more than a paycheck. Having an older brother with developmental disabilities inspired a yearning to help that population.
Morris began working at Community Intersections, a local nonprofit that helps people with disabilities reach their potential. One day, he noticed people taking apart donated electronics in the back of CI’s building.
“I started to stand there and just observe them, and I noticed they had this innate skill,” Morris said. “If you put a computer in front of them, they’d look it over and start to break it down in a very systematic way. I looked at their files and saw that they’d all been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.”
Morris researched autism and found that people with autism often excel at repetitive work, and that around 90 percent of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed.
He also discovered that Colorado Springs was lagging behind other cities for places recycling old electronics, which often end up in landfills or creeks, leaching dangerous chemicals into the environment.
The lightbulb lit up: Why not solve both problems with one organization?
And Blue Star Recyclers was born.
Early on, Morris and four employees shared the CI building. Then he met Tony and Mary Fagnant, owners of Qualtek Manufacturing in Colorado Springs. They bought into the dream with a building, a truck and initial funding.
Today, Blue Star Recyclers’ 24 employees work in a 12,000-square-foot warehouse northwest of Cascade Avenue and Fillmore Street.
“The people we employ with disabilities haven’t had any turnover, absenteeism or lost-time accidents in five years while we’ve recycled 6.5 million pounds of electronics,” Morris said. “The industry average for the non-disabled worker in our industry, there’s 600 to 700 percent turnover. They don’t like the work, it’s boring, and they tend to get a lot of injuries because they don’t want to work.
“So we think we’ve found a task that’s literally custom-made for people with autism; they just love the work.”
With the old approach to employing people with disabilities, he said, they produced nothing because nothing was expected of them. Morris credits production director Dave Fry with finding ways to challenge their workers. Now, a whiteboard shows their progress in meeting or exceeding each day’s goal — which keeps increasing.
“The metaphor for this is wasted talent, because these folks would sit at home. They’re tremendous talent,” he said.
[pullquote] “The people we employ with disabilities haven’t had any turnover, absenteeism or lost-time accidents in five years while we’ve recycled 6.5 million pounds of electronics.” – Bill Morris[/pullquote]Morris is concerned about our throwaway society, one that discards things — or people — that seem valueless, but he sees signs of progress. He’s witnessed Millennials’ desire to change the world and their comfort around people with disabilities. He also finds hope in people his age, in their late 50s, seeking more meaningful lives.
Morris wants to expand the operation to hire veterans with brain injuries and PTSD, so a separate building is on his wish list for this year, BSR’s third time in the Give! campaign. But helping people born with disabilities will always be the focus.
“One of the moms said it best: ‘Nathan’s been dependent on someone his whole life for food, shelter, everything. But for five hours a day, you’re dependent on him.’ And I think that’s the secret,” Morris said.
Blue Star Recyclers is turning people who have seizures into people who are seizure-free while working, non-verbal people into people who talk and hug, and people who cost American taxpayers about $15,000 per year into people earning wages.
“We tend to hire the people who are ‘throwaways.’ We give them second lives, just like we do with the materials,” Morris said. That’s the best kind of recycling.
Give! is an annual year-end philanthropic initiative created to encourage everyone in the Pikes Peak region to get involved with local nonprofits, with a particular emphasis on catalyzing philanthropy from those 36 years old and younger. Over the past five years, Give! has channeled $3.4 million directly to 113 local nonprofits while giving them access to matching grants, media exposure and dozens of hands-on training opportunities from local and regional experts. It is a project of the Colorado Springs Independent alternative newsweekly and is conducted under the fiscal sponsorship of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation.