An array of light displays decorate a wall inside the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse. (Photo by Adina Keeling)

Hidden gems are scattered throughout the rustic warehouse at 1245 Hartrey Ave. Fake candles and sparkling crystals adorn a wall-mounted light fixture, and a luxurious bathtub marks the end of aisle three. Even the wooden planks stashed in the back of the warehouse hold hidden value, because they are cut from old-growth wood more than 100 years old, said store manager Ryan Tucker.

Tucker works at the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, a local nonprofit that collects donated furniture, kitchen cabinets, appliances, doors and other building materials, which are sold at a reduced cost.

But the warehouse is a lot more than a retail shop. The organization, founded in 2011, boasts a long list of services and resources that benefit the community while practicing accessibility and sustainability. 

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Last May, the organization merged with the Rebuilding Exchange, a Chicago-based nonprofit. Together, these two operate as one, providing public workshops, a workforce training program for unemployed individuals and a sustainable deconstruction service, as well as two warehouses – one in Evanston and one in Chicago – brimming with donated building materials. 

In a couple of weeks, the nonprofit will add another gem to its list of services: a new pre-apprenticeship program based in Evanston. This program is intended to break down some of the barriers that keep would-be workers from accessing trade apprenticeships and securing construction jobs. 

Similar pre-apprenticeship programs are set to sprout throughout the state, funded by a nearly $10 million State of Illinois grant to 23 organizations, including the Evanston nonprofit.

Executive Director Aina Gutierrez speaks at the Jan. 27 news conference. (Photo credit: Rebuilding Exchange)

“We’re really excited to be a part of this grant,” said Aina Gutierrez, Executive Director at the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse. Unlike the nonprofit’s existing training program, the pre-apprenticeship program will involve more classroom work, helping trainees qualify for both union and non-union apprenticeship programs, which can be very inaccessible, she said. 

For instance, carpenters do a lot of reading and math, so anyone interested in a carpentry apprenticeship will need to pass an exam, Gutierrez said. They are also required to pay an entry fee, bring their own tools and work clothes, and find a way to travel to the apprenticeship, she added. Those requirements can pose major barriers for some candidates.

On top of the vocational training, the warehouse can help people acquire tools, the proper clothing and a bus card, Gutierrez said. The pre-apprenticeship program also will allow trainees to find out which trades they do and don’t like. 

“Sometimes people just need that little bump of support to get them on their way,” she said. “That is what pre-apprenticeship is all about.”

Illinois also benefits from these programs because they will create a larger construction workforce, which is needed to carry out the major projects to be funded by President Joe Biden’s federal infrastructure law and Rebuild Illinois, a six-year capital infrastructure project, said Gutierrez. 

Governor J.B. Pritzker gives a news conference at the Rebuilding Exchange in Chicago. (Photo credit: Rebuilding Exchange)

To celebrate the new program, Governor J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Commerce held a news conference at the Rebuilding Exchange location in Chicago on Jan. 27, discussing the grant and the Illinois Works Pre-Apprenticeship Program.

“In an industry that has historically been a whole lot whiter and male-dominated than the population that it serves, programming built around removing barriers is more important than ever,” Pritzker said at the news conference. 

Even before receiving the Illinois grant, the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse showed a dedication to boosting diversity in the building trades by making the path toward employment more accessible. 

The nonprofit’s Workforce Training Program is designed to support those who face barriers to employment, including poverty, homelessness or past incarceration. Trainees are paid minimum wage 24 hours a week for 20 weeks.

The nonprofit also supports trainees by evaluating which barriers might prevent a person from securing a job and working to reduce those barriers. At the end of the 20 weeks, the warehouse helps connect trainees with a living-wage job. 

“They helped me out with so much beyond just work,” said Chad Lemke, a Workforce Training Program graduate. (Photo by Adina Keeling)

Chad Lemke is a 2019 graduate of the Workforce Training Program. He joined the program after struggling to find job placement and battling homelessness. The program was “a blast,” and every day he learned something new, the Chicago resident said. 

“They helped me out with so much beyond just work,” Lemke said. After graduating from the program, the nonprofit found a job for him at a different company, but unfortunately, that job didn’t end up being the right fit, he said.

Lemke found himself out of work again, but while perusing the web, he discovered a retail associate job opening at the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, he said. He applied and now works at the nonprofit. 

“It’s been a lot of fun being back here and seeing everyone again,” Lemke said. “I can’t ask for better people to work with.” 

Other graduates of the program have gone on to work as painters, handymen, HVAC repair workers and more, Gutierrez said. The 20-week program provides trainees with marketable credentials, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 10-hour construction training certificate and forklift certification as well as the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead-based paint certification. Those documents help program graduates get higher wages, she said.

When trainees aren’t working in the field, they are at the warehouse on Hartrey. (Photo by Adina Keeling)

Throughout the Workforce Training Program, trainees either work at the warehouse on Hartrey or they receive hands-on training in the field. The nonprofit offers building and kitchen deconstruction as an alternative to demolition, and much of this work is carried out by the trainees.

Deconstruction involves taking apart a home in order to repurpose the building materials. Most of the time, homeowners then donate their materials to the nonprofit. Because the warehouse is a 501(c)3 charity, homeowners receive a tax deduction for any materials donated.

In addition to ensuring accessibility and practicing sustainability, the warehouse offers a number of workshops that teach community members handy skills like how to rewire a light fixture or how to build a floating shelf. These workshops are listed on the nonprofit’s website.

The warehouse is a community-focused organization where sustainability and job training come together, said Gutierrez.

The nonprofit also wants to show members of the community, especially young Evanstonians, that they don’t have to go to college or follow a more traditional career path to have fulfilling or sustaining career, Gutierrez said.

“There’s a ton of demand for trades jobs right now,” she said. “We need to do our part to get more folks in our community into those jobs.”

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...