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Picked up, sanded off

2019 Hope Awards Northeast winner Purposeful Design | A carpentry shop offers ex-addicts and homeless the chance to build furniture, friendship, and a future

Picked up, sanded off

The Purposeful Design lobby with photos and testimonials. (Charissa Koh)

This story is part of our 2019 Hope Awards contest. To vote for your favorite regional winner, go to wng.org/compassion.

No building in Indiana’s capital is taller than the Salesforce Tower, with its 49 floors and recognizable twin antennae. It overlooks Monument Circle, where a 284-foot obelisk, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, centers the city. Shops and restaurants line the brick street, with horse-drawn carriages lingering nearby. The monument draws tourists, and the tourists draw panhandlers.

Jesse Slaugh spent a year homeless in Indianapolis, regularly camping at the foot of the Salesforce Tower. He had become a Christian in a California rehab center years earlier, but he relapsed into drugs and alcohol when his brother died. Hoping for a fresh start, he moved to Indiana to be near friends, but fights with his girlfriend landed him in jail. Homeless and unfamiliar with the city, Slaugh tried to learn the streets and which way the buildings faced. He soon discovered Monument Circle, a main tourist attraction where he could “shake a cup” to get what he needed. He slept at Wheeler Mission, the largest and oldest homeless shelter in Indianapolis, and there met David Palmer.

Palmer, a marketing consultant, served on the board of the mission from 2002 to 2012 and sometimes led Bible studies there. “How are you doing?” he asked residents. They often said they could not find jobs. After praying and googling, Palmer came up with an idea to help them. With no carpentry background, he and some friends used wooden pallets to build some furniture and asked for feedback. The affirmation they received convinced Palmer that working with wood could be the answer.

Purposeful Design became a place where men leaving addiction, prison, or homelessness find a job, friendship, and discipleship. Jesse Slaugh joined the team soon after it began in 2013, with six men making specialty tables in a church building. The first year, they made $37,000 (“which we loved, because we thought at the time it might be zero,” said Palmer), and sales continue to grow. The most recent year brought in $1.5 million, and the nonprofit business earned loyal customers like Purdue University and pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Purposeful Design even furnished the first six floors of the Salesforce Tower.

Charissa Koh

Zach McClintock (Charissa Koh)

Last year, the nonprofit relocated to a warehouse in northeast Indy, nearer most of the workers. Now visitors enter a high-ceilinged, woody-smelling lobby with gray walls and linoleum floors. One wall displays bright photos of workers saying how Purposeful Design helped them change: “I used drugs and sold them. Then I had an encounter with a man named Jesus,” says one placard. Another reads: “God picked me up, sanded me off, put a new coat of stain over me, and set me back on the shelf.”

The workshop is large and open, with shelves of tools and tables of wood boards waiting to be cut, sanded, or glued together. The room smells like sawdust, though plastic hoses attached to the machinery keep the air clear. Along one wall are a pingpong table and pool table. The men play so frequently they are considering forming a competitive pingpong team. Fans whir, the sander squeals, and Zach McClintock, wearing protective glasses, jeans, and a blue and white striped shirt, guides a rotating saw blade through a board.

To get hired, a man must be able-bodied, clean and sober, and ready to follow instructions. Experience with power tools is preferred but not required. McClintock had zero experience when he came to ask for a job, but he bumped into Justin Christian, the production manager, on the way in. That day the workshop was understaffed with several orders to fill, so Christian asked, “Can you sand?” and sent him to the workshop. Once hired, McClintock learned the basics: selecting raw material, measuring, cutting it to size. Simple projects followed, then the more advanced: He made a wooden cutout of Indiana, now hanging on the wall of Christian’s office.

McClintock came to Purposeful Design for carpentry experience after a descent into addiction: “All my entire check, everything I was working for, was being turned around and going to drugs. I wasn’t even feeling good from it anymore because the shame and guilt was just overpowering it. And my tolerance had increased so much that the only reason I was doing it was to not get sick.”

Charissa Koh

David Palmer (Charissa Koh)

Now he has worked at Purposeful Design for a year and a half and stayed clean six months longer than that. The accountability and friendship from co-workers—about 50-60 have worked at Purposeful Design—are consistently helpful: “Everyone’s always quick and eager to say hello and ‘I love you’ and care for you and asking if you’re OK.” He said some of the men “won’t hesitate to tell you you’re being stupid.” McClintock doesn’t claim to be a Christian, but he regularly attends the Bible studies and asks questions. “When you have good mentors who don’t shut down questions, you think, ‘Maybe this is for me,’” he said. Staff members recently bought him a copy of Evidence That Demands a Verdict, a book by apologist Josh McDowell, and he plans to read it.

The lunchroom is narrow, with windows along one wall and cabinets, a sink, and a Keurig coffee maker along the other. Two handmade tables are in the middle. Twelve paperback Bibles neatly line one windowsill for weekly Bible studies. Each morning, the workers circle up and pray, and at 10:30 have a devotion in the lunchroom. Managers do not make employees participate, but most do. Beyond that, discipleship happens through the intentional relationships staff members build with craftsmen.

“We’re not here just to teach woodworking or offer a paycheck but to get under the skin,” David Palmer said. “That begins with heart change. Otherwise … we feel like we’re putting a Band-Aid on a terrible wound.”

VINCE HICKS is lead finisher at Purposeful Design. Finishing is the trickiest part of the carpentry process, most men agree, and Hicks earned his role through four years of work. At 27, his imposing height and thick black beard would be intimidating without his gregarious grin. He wears his short dreadlocks bundled into a tuft on top of his head.

After getting baptized at 18, Hicks said, he “went out, did crazy stuff, lived on my own for a little bit.” Things spiraled when he moved in with a woman, Daphne, and her two kids. He struggled to find and keep a job. They became homeless. He fell into legal trouble and was “just struggling, using still, and I’m drinking and partying.” At 21, he and Daphne had split up, and Hicks was living with his cousin. One weekend he came home at 3 a.m. to get drunk and watch a movie with his cousin and their friends. A scene in the movie caught his attention: He felt God telling him life was about Jesus, not Hicks, and if he really loved Daphne, he should marry her.

Hicks went to Daphne’s apartment: “That moment defined my faith life. Because all the things I told her, she was willing to forgive me.” Daphne had been learning about God’s character through Heart Change University, a program Cindy Palmer, David’s wife, had started. Two or three days later, Hicks bought an engagement ring. Two months later he and Daphne were baptized and started attending Nehemiah Bible Church. 

Hicks met David Palmer just before Purposeful Design began. Palmer offered him a full-time position, and Hicks has been working there since the beginning: “I just feel like everybody’s family. … It’s been a real good ride.”

Through working at Purposeful Design, Hicks said, he learned to accept his mistakes without seeing himself as a failure. One of his early projects was to distress a pair of tabletops. The managers said to put a few nicks in them to make them look aged and weathered. Hicks got carried away: “I started to bring rocks and asphalt from outside, and then I got bigger hammers, bigger nails, bigger chains, and I just, I almost destroyed these tables.”

Charissa Koh

Vince Hicks (Charissa Koh)

One of the managers was frustrated with Hicks, but the other took him outside and told him he appreciated the effort and creativity—then explained how to do it right next time. “I’ve screwed up a lot,” Hicks recalled, “but they have had patience with me and showed me how to get the outcomes I’m looking for, and they did it without getting angry.”

One April afternoon, 15 men and three women—black and white, young and old—crowded around two tables in a classroom at Purposeful Design. Most looked at Bibles and took notes in binders as the animated teacher, Bill Moore, exhorted them to fight sin. Moore is a local businessman and one of 45 volunteer instructors who teach at the School of Woodworking and Discipleship. Palmer started the school last year to offer one month of life skills classes and carpentry training. The goal is to prepare students for the next step, whether that’s work, counseling, or school. Most students leave connected with a full-time job, and in the future, Purposeful Design will hire mainly from the graduates.

As the ministry’s director, Palmer doesn’t work in the craftsman shop himself, but he knows the workers by name and greets them every day. Hicks said, “I’ve never met somebody who has been consistent in smiling as much as he’s been. Dude’s been smiling since I met him.” But everything isn’t smiles: Earlier this year, the ministry changed its policy to zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol. Staff members realized giving multiple chances to men who showed up high or drunk was hurting the business, hurting the individuals, and hurting their watching co-workers.

Palmer said the new policy lost Purposeful Design three employees, but he’s seen others improve, getting tough on themselves to keep their jobs. The staff now does random drug and alcohol tests on the production floor, and fires those who fail. “I honestly can say I’m in the war on drugs,” said Hicks. “It affects me when guys don’t show up, when we hear about our brother that’s fallen back into what they’re dealing with. But it just brings the reality that we’re all one bad decision away.”

Palmer says quality control, market value, and timeliness remain constant challenges. Purposeful Design hires “instead of the cream of the crop, the bottom of the barrel,” and always has the challenge of balancing business goals with relationship goals. Palmer described some of the high-tech equipment Purposeful Design uses, then said, “We could go more high-tech, we could add more equipment and fewer men. But we’re here for employment and training and to help them.” Rehab programs normally have time limits, but men can work at Purposeful Design as long as they need to: Hicks and Jesse Slaugh, who started soon after the business began, are still there.

A table Slaugh built himself resides on the second floor of the Salesforce Tower, where he used to panhandle. The table is 12 feet long and 4 feet wide, made of expensive multicolored zebra wood from Africa. “It’s beautiful!” Slaugh exclaimed. Now he is a production manager, responsible for leading, mentoring, and keeping the craftsmen on task. The job has provided accountability and mentors for Slaugh: He is now married with a 4-year-old son and is preparing to purchase a home not far from Purposeful Design: “I will go from homeless to homeowner in five years. It’s by God’s grace, not through me.”

Purposeful Design

2018 income: $1.4 million
2018 expenses: $1.3 million
Paid staff:Volunteers: 50
CEO’s salary: David Palmer would not disclose his salary, but said it’s less than he made before and he is not the highest-paid employee.
Website: pdindy.com

Charissa Koh

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and a reporter for WORLD.