Retirees at Realife Cooperative find new use for old skills

Luke Reiter

Realife Co-Op, Industries, Inc.
Bud Erickson, Mike Walker, Charity Tohannie and Joel Martin look over possible projects

Bud Erickson shifted through a stack of lumber in the wood shop at Realife Cooperative, searching for potential. A few of the pieces were flat and solid with any number of uses, and Erickson speculated a thick stump with a rough aspect could be made into a clock.

“But some of these boards,” Erickson said, raising a particularly warped sample, “I think I should make a airplane propeller or something.” He chuckled.

The lumber, like Erickson, has been around a while. In a past life these boards and beams comprised various barns and outbuildings throughout the region. Now, thanks to Industries, Inc., and residents at Realife, these pieces will have new purpose.

The salvaging of the wood is done by Industries, a company which provides job skills and employment opportunities to people with disabilities. Selected pieces are then brought to Realife where Erickson, Bert Strelow, Willis Dahlman and other wood shop-savvy retirees will saw, bevel, sand and drill the wood into easily assembled kits for Industries workers.

“It’s great old wood and we’re hoping that the years of experience here maybe will be able to look at something and say, ‘Oh, this will be perfect for…,’” explained Michelle Thomas, director of sales and marketing for Industries.

The project was conceived by Mike Walker, an Industries job coach. Walker was inspired by an article on the wood shop established at the Realife senior housing cooperative in Cambridge, and he contacted Erickson about his idea in January.

Erickson, who worked as a shop teacher for 31 years and serves as a shop steward at Realife, found a new purpose for more than just the wood.

“We figured God has kept us alive for some reason, and we’re trying to figure out what it is,” Erickson said.

Proposed kits include coat racks, picture frames, signs and bird houses, among other things. Already the two groups have begun work on several flower boxes, which are sized and prepared by the retirees and then sent back to Industries to be assembled and stenciled with designs.

“It doesn’t feel like doing work, it just feels like you’re doing art or something,” said Charity Tohannie, an Industries participant.

Walker explained that even simple projects like a stool makes a big difference for Industries consumers.

“It’s not just a stool, it’s like four more jobs for us,” Walker explained.

The the skill and effort of the Realife craftsmen is expanding Industries’ product line, but more importantly according to Walker it’s expanding the skills and abilities of its participants.

“We really appreciate the passing on of knowledge,” Walker said.