Friends of the Carpenter rebuilds lives with woodworking

Charity uses its day center to encourage homeless, at-risk populations to find new direction

Youth woodworking
Courtesy of Friends of the Carpenter

Woodworking and crafts aren’t just an outlet for creativity for those seeking help from Friends of the Carpenter – they’re also a way to rebuild lives.

The charity, founded in 1998, uses woodworking and crafts to help the homeless and at-risk populations find new direction. Most of its 13,000-square-foot day center is focused on carpentry skills, but that’s secondary to the group’s real mission, said Tom Iberle, Friends of the Carpenter’s executive director.

“It’s not about the wood,” Iberle said. “That’s one of our favorite sayings. It’s about rebuilding lives. I’ve had recovery counselors say it’s a really big deal to find something outside of yourself to connect with. And when you see the look on somebody’s face when they’re known and welcomed, it makes a big difference, especially when you’ve been torn down.”

Friends of the Carpenter was founded by the Rev. Duane L. Sich, an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church, in October 1998. The charity received 501 (c) 3 status in March of 1999.

“It actually originally launched out of the third bay of Duane’s garage,” Iberle said. “He was an associate pastor for 27 years, and in addition to that, he was also a hobby woodworker.”

Sich loved the ministry, but also was frustrated by homelessness and the plight of people on the streets. So, he founded Friends of the Carpenter as a way to help them reintegrate with the community, Iberle said.

“He wanted to help them in, rather than help them out,” Iberle said. “He wanted to help them into a wider community of support to make progress in their lives. There are dozens of ways people end up finding themselves in these situations.”

Friends of the Carpenter’s day facility is full of woodworking equipment and crafting tools. It’s a creative outlet, and projects help bring people together and give them hope, Iberle said.

“For people who are struggling, it’s a shelter from the storm and something productive they can do,” Iberle said.

The day facility, called the “Friendship Center,” welcomes the homeless, low-income families, people with mental illness, special needs individuals, the disabled and anyone else who is struggling. It provides access to resources, including haircuts, counseling and job placement services.

“We see ourselves as a gathering point for people in need of services,” Iberle said.

Share House operates its own day center in the same building, and the two facilities work in concert. The two groups were co-located in 2015 in the warehouse at 1600 W. 20th St.

Share’s day center is focused more on job skills, life skills, resumes and other immediate needs, whereas Friends of the Carpenter’s center is more geared toward rebuilding people’s lives and social networks, Iberle said.

“I’ve seen a lot of other day centers, but none have that aspect of our activity program,” Iberle said. “I think that’s what sets us apart.”

Share’s day center is open more often than the Friends of the Carpenter center. Share is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. The Friends of the Carpenter day center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“People go back and forth pretty often,” Iberle said. “Having the sites co-located is a huge benefit.”

Beyond woodworking, Friends of the Carpenter has also seen a new spur into jewelry making, Iberle said.

“They’ve made bracelets, beading, sewing, other kinds of art are now finding ways into our program,” Iberle said. “Not everybody’s up for sanding. It’s just about any kind of art or craft activity that we can think of.”

Those crafts also help support the charity. Many are sold through the group’s 2nd Chance Thrift Store at 3414 A NE 52nd St., which in turn supports Friends of the Carpenter.

The charity has also expanded services over the years, adding new groups of people, including those assigned by the courts to do community service.

“We are a place for people to come do their community service when assigned,” Iberle said. “And we’ve seen some amazing transformations.”

One person who came to Friends of the Carpenter that way, a man named Donald, was living in his truck and got a ticket for sleeping on the side of the road. After he got in trouble with the police, he asked the agency for help.

“He came to us, and he really took to our scroll saw,” Iberle said. “He developed that skill, and he was able to partially support himself selling his work. He died about a year ago, but he was able to reconnect with his family in his time with us.”

Creativity and care can go a long way in rebuilding a broken life, Iberle added.

“They come in often beaten down, not sure where they’re going to go next,” he said. “And when they come here, we can give them some direction.”

The charity has also expanded quite a bit from its roots at First Presbyterian Church. Today, Friends of the Carpenter works with 27 different local churches and about seven different denominations.

“As a faith based organization, we’re doing what we can to change lives with God’s love, and leaving the rest to that higher power,” Iberle said.

Iberle said he also hopes the business community will make connections with Friends of the Carpenter. The facility can make specific products for business or can find and build up potential new employees, he said.

“We’re trying to get our name out – we’re not very well known in the business community,” Iberle said. “We do a lot of special projects. We can make furniture, plaques, all sorts of things. We’re here, we’re available and we’d like to invite the business community to come check us out.”

The charity is also in the process of building a new business sponsor package with a range of levels of giving and support.

“We want to be able to find out if there are organizations and businesses out there that believe in what we’re doing,” Iberle said.

On the charity’s wish list still is access to facilities like showers and laundry. The center was ready to add those services itself, but workers found a sewer easement issue that stopped those plans, Iberle said.

Some neighbors also oppose having the two day centers in their area. And the two centers are only guaranteed to remain in the building through the end of December, although that could be extended, he said.

“The city is still struggling with that issue,” Iberle said.

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