The Saint of Second Chances

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - Step inside Usful Glassworks and what catches your eye is the gleaming glassware. The offerings aren't quite Steuben quality, but they still glow with an inner fire.

Look more closely, though, and the pieces betray their origins: Smirnoff, Crown Royal, Coca-Cola.

And that's the beauty of what Usful Glassworks does.

"You don't see the beauty of the bottles until we cut them and present it as something other than a bottle," says Carlyn Blake, Usful's executive director.

At Usful, ordinary bottles become re-purposed works of art: tumblers, butter dishes and wind chimes. And the more decorated the original bottles, the more coveted they are as glassware.

Blake is eager to show a reporter some of the more intriguing samples, including one that's extremely rare.

"It's the Pendleton 1910," she says, cradling an ornately-carved whisky bottle from Canada.

Then drawing an invisible line across the front, just above the bucking bronco artwork, she helps you visualize the finished piece.

"It probably makes the most beautiful glass we've ever seen," Blake says with a sly grin.

And it will sell for around $15.

This is arguably the most creatively profitable venture in recycling to date. Stuff we just toss aside without thinking is rescued and given a second chance at life.

The same could be said for the workers at Usful Glassworks. The idea was the brainchild of a local radiologist.

"She just wanted to help female offenders and wanted to do something about recycling," Blake says.

"She literally opened her checkbook and wrote a really big check and got us started," Blake says, still marveling at the chutzpah.

That was a little more than three years ago. Today, the production line at Usful buzzes with activity. The volunteers rotate among several positions, from a large washtub where they scrub labels, to a specialized glass-cutting machine that lops off the necks of bottles with ease.

With the exception of a couple of supervisors, no one on the factory floor draws a salary. In exchange for providing the manpower to turn out exceptional glass products, the volunteers learn valuable job skills.

Dayne Cooper huddles over a polishing machine. He holds a rough-edged glass against a turntable-size disc. Carefully, he holds the outside edge of the glass to the spinning surface and he smiles.

Cooper was a carpenter until a car crash broke his back and his spirit.

"My lines of work were limited--framing, carpentry, heavy lifting. So these folks are helping me get back in the job market," he says.

Blake says in this tough economy employers have their pick of job candidates, so graduates at Usful have a lot more to prove, especially given their backgrounds.

"We teach people the basics of counting, sorting, categorization, washing and storage of bottles," she says.

She's also keen to point out that Usful partners with vocational programs to make sure her grads have the most current training available. It's a measure of Blake's commitment to each and every volunteer.

"I feel personally responsible for everybody in this building," she says in a rare moment of reflection.

Blake is clearly the best kind of boss. She's equal parts cheerleader and mother hen.

"It's what I'm supposed to be doing," she says with her voice rising. "It feeds my soul and makes me happy."

And you absolutely believe her.

But it's not hard to find fans among the workers at Usful.

Her primary job trainer, Rhonda Eddings, probably said it best as she helped a deaf volunteer learn to use the glass-cutter.

"Not many people get hired on and they hired me," says the 58-year-old mother of a teenager who has known some lean times.

What does working at Usful mean to her?

"Everything," she says, tearing up. "Without them I don't know where I'd be."

Eddings looks over at Blake and smiles, her chin still trembling.

"She's a godsend," she says quietly. "Saved my life."

There's a symmetry at work here. Shattered lives made whole again by breaking every rule you've ever known about glass.

Carlyn Blake knows it takes a little faith and a little imagination, and she has an abundance of both.

She's the saint of second chances.