Volume 19 Number 4
Harnessing the Power of Boaz and Ruth
01 August 2006

Karen Elliott Greisdorf discovers a programme which is revitalising old furniture, broken lives and a whole neighbourhood.

KELVIN COLEY MEANS BUSINESS. Not a customer comes in nor an item goes out of the showroom he manages without his notice. The 4,500 square foot storefront in Richmond, Virginia, USA, showcases the revenue-driven business initiatives of an innovative non-profit, Boaz & Ruth.‘A good day for me at Boaz & Ruth is giving a tour of everything and having everyone on the tour decide they want to stay and shop,’ says Coley.

Boaz & Ruth is based in Highland Park, an area of Richmond, Virginia, which has a history of crime and urban decay. Its vision has three parts: to provide job training for ex-offenders and people in recovery from substance abuse; to revitalise retail businesses in a depressed neighbourhood; and to nurture cross-cultural connectedness in a city well known for its role in the history of the slave trade.

Eric Hunter, President of the three-year-old Highland Park Merchants Association, has lived in Highland Park for close to 40 years. He remembers when it was home to a thriving business corridor with grocery stores, banks and entertainment venues.

‘Highland Park was really the first true suburb within the City of Richmond,’ says Hunter. ‘But with white flight (the voluntary relocation of white residents to avoid integration) further out to the counties, a good part of the revenue left.’ With less capital being earned and spent in the neighborhood, it became known more for crime and boarded-up homes than as a commercial destination.

From the late 1980s, the Highland Park Community Development Corporation (HPCDC) worked to reverse this trend, helping over 400 families to buy their own homes and assisting hundreds more with home repairs. The CDC’s Founding Executive Director, Ellen Robertson, saw house values double. But she knew more was needed; establishing a strong economic base was ‘absolutely critical’.

She approached an acquaintance, Martha Rollins, the owner of an antique store in an upscale neighbourhood less than five miles—and a world—away from Highland Park. For over 20 years, Rollins had carried what she calls a ‘God-given thought’ to start a furniture refinishing shop that would offer training to people in recovery from substance abuse or imprisonment. As its trainees, or apprentices as they came to be known, gave new life to well-worn furniture, they would develop the life skills needed to get and keep a job and the spiritual growth to sustain a purpose-driven life.

Robertson held a lease on an old firehouse in Highland Park and suggested that Rollins launch her idea there. Rollins turned her down because she felt that the neighbourhood wasn’t prosperous or safe enough to establish a profitable foothold. But when her antique store received a donation of a house-full of furniture, she needed somewhere to put it. She accepted Robertson’s offer. Almost a year later, in November 2002, when an abandoned retail space became available, Boaz & Ruth was born.

Boaz & Ruth’s first year budget totalled $150,000. Today it is about $600,000, reflecting an increase in the number of apprentices, staff and programmes. The income from Boaz & Ruth’s businesses, all run by apprentices, has grown as well, consistently contributing a third of the budget. The initiative is faith-based, as suggested by the names of its projects. In addition to Parable Restoration, which refinishes furniture, and the Harvest Store, which sells antiques and gently-used household items, other enterprises include Diamond Café & Catering and Mountain Movers, a furniture moving and removal service. Apprentices also learn construction skills by renovating abandoned houses, which are then sold for a profit. In the coming year, the firehouse will be converted to hold a restaurant and individual commercial spaces for small businesses started by graduating apprentices and Highland Park residents.

Veronica Kerns was one of the first four ex-offenders to become an apprentice. In between working with Rollins on the writing of policy and the rehabilitation of the building, Kerns and the other apprentices took on-site classes in everything from anger management and core beliefs to computers and healthy families. Weekly family meetings were led by volunteer Bonnie Dowdy. ‘We learned we had put ourselves in boxes and limited ourselves,’ says Kerns. ‘Now I know that I am only restricted by my own mind.’ She now works for Boaz & Ruth, with responsibility for tracking grant funding from federal sources and for selling items through the online auction site eBay.

Pat Asch, Executive Director of the Jackson Foundation went on an early tour of Boaz & Ruth. ‘I know what’s good, creative and well managed, and I saw that in Boaz & Ruth,’ she says. Her foundation gave a number of seed grants, which Rollins used to raise funding from other organisations.

Former corporate executive Don Cowles sees Boaz & Ruth as unique because it ‘recruits talented associates whom other businesses ignore’ (because they are ex-offenders) and gives priority to their development.

‘Sometimes prison is a tool to get people to notice,’ says Rollins. ‘We encourage the apprentices to claim their past, embrace it and not be embarrassed by it. They’ve been released from prison, but the future is really about releasing their gifts.’

Kelvin Coley describes his profession prior to prison and discovering Boaz & Ruth as ‘jack of all trades and a master of none’. While his background was in building, he really wanted to try his hand at sales. Boaz & Ruth gave him that opportunity.’

When Kelvin came here he was withdrawn and in a shell,’ says Rosa Jiggetts, a longtime activist and something of a godmother to the Boaz & Ruth operation. ‘Then he grabbed onto Martha’s skirt tails and learned what it would take to run this showroom.’

The venture’s name is drawn from the Old Testament story, where Boaz, the wealthy landowner who has more than he needs, enables Ruth, a new arrival in his country who has less than she needs, to survive by gleaning the grain dropped by harvesters in his fields. ‘Boaz’ is the ‘wealth sharer,’ represented both by the customer base and future employers of the apprentices; ‘Ruth’ represents those who need training and assistance as they move towards self-sufficiency.

A variety of social programmes connect the Boazes and Ruths of Richmond, diverse in terms of both race and class. The roles often shift as visitors are inspired by the energy, spirituality and courage shown by the apprentices.

The initiative breaks down barriers by encouraging people from the richer parts of the city to shop in small businesses in the poorest areas and to draw together at social events. John Moeser, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond (VA), sees this as a model. ‘It is easily replicable,’ he says. ‘The fear that grips so many inner-city neighbourhoods in Richmond can be overcome by people of faith locking arms, celebrating life and courageously building new communities in the midst of crime and decline.’

Ellen Robertson, now a Richmond City Councilwoman, welcomes the renewed interest in Highland Park’s economic potential, which Boaz & Ruth has stimulated, and is pressing in the Council for the structural improvements that will nurture this. ‘This is about growing a social fabric rather than strictly the exchange of the dollar,’ she says.

Boaz & Ruth calls the local Highland Park community and Richmond citywide to a new level of relationship. When Rollins first started filling the firehouse with furniture, Rosa Jiggetts remembers, ‘I told her I’d help her get the business started, but we’ve come to understand each other and she’s part of healing me. It started out about the business, but it became about friendship.’

There is a bench in the middle of the showroom Kelvin Coley manages. At first glance it’s hard to tell that Bill McCallister, Master Craftsman and Manager of Parable Restoration, fashioned it out of the headboard and footboard of a discarded bed. In much the same way, the men and women McCallister is training were once overlooked. Now the restored lives and the refinished furniture on one corner are an invitation to revitalisation for a whole neighbourhood and, perhaps one day, an entire city.