Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Joe Walsh: I am a systems nerd. I love making systems, so that’s something else I love to do. If you put me in a situation I’m going to look for the system that I can make, I can create out of that. So that really came naturally to me, my desire to do that. It’s not to say that it’s been easy, but my desire to be able to set it up so that people would have a consistent experience from customer to customer to customer is something that I get really excited about doing. I can really keep going on that stuff.
Allie Smith: I was very fortunate early in my career to have the experience of exchanging my labor and work directly for only housing and food. That was in another country, and what I learned through that experience was what that reward felt like to get, to have my personal motivations be so aligned with the motivations of an organization, that all I really needed in return was basic living security.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you’re listening to Love Maine Radio ShowNumber 290, Cleaner Homes and Beds For All, airing for the first time on Sunday April 9, 2017. Is it possible to take a good thing and make it even better? Today we speak with three entrepreneurs who are taking a unique approach to helping people have happier homes. Joe Walsh is the founder and CEO of Green Clean Maine, an innovative environmentally friendly home cleaning company. Amy and Allie Smith offer an earn-a-bed program through their non-profit, Healthy Homeworks. We think you’ll enjoy the show. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: Today it is my pleasure to speak with Joe Walsh who is the founder and CEO of Green Clean Maine, an environmentally-friendly home cleaning company serving greater Portland since 2007. Thanks so much for coming in today.
Joe Walsh: Thanks for having me Lisa.
Lisa Belisle: I really like many things about your company. Not the least of which is that you’ve been thinking about healthier homes and non-toxic products for longer than many people have been.
Joe Walsh: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: 10 years now.
Joe Walsh: Yeah, we’re going to be celebrating our tenth anniversary in October, but the start of the idea of the business was just over 10 years ago. We’re in March now, end of March already, so it was just over 10 years ago that the idea first started germinating in there.
Lisa Belisle: Appropriate for a green clean idea.
Joe Walsh: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Things growing in the right way. Tell me a little bit about your background. What was it about your growing up life in Rhode Island that caused you to think, “Uh, I think I’d like to go to Maine and open a green cleaning company?”
Joe Walsh: I think it’s one of those stories that I sort of ended up with starting a cleaning company; I didn’t move to Maine with that intention. Back in Rhode Island I had gotten interested in environmental issues through the road of sustainable development. I was involved down there in a community group that had gotten together to try and block or significantly change this suburban sprawl development that was going to be massive and would have completely change the character of my home town. I come from a very rural farming-type place in Rhode Island, a real small town.
This development that was going to go in would have brought a whole mess of suburban sprawl to the town that was totally out of character with the rolling hills and the stone walls and just totally out of place there. The more I learned about it the more I realized how environmentally irresponsible it was to build that way and I became really interested in sustainable land use and sustainable land use development, and really interested in places that had managed to remain walkable, places that weren’t auto-centered. I had lived in Ireland for about 18 months after I graduated college, and living in a city there that’s much like Portland actually, Galway Island, on the west coast.
They’re very similar, Portland and Galway, in that they’re both very walkable. They have vibrant food scenes and vibrant music scenes and vibrant art scenes. Just a really cool energetic small city. That is part of what drew me to Portland, but it was also this kind of idea, this interest in environmental sustainability. I was looking for a way to get involved in a business that would be making money but also benefiting the environment at the same time. I saw an opportunity in Portland that was a three or four-month contract job, it was a summer gig. It was selling advertising for a startup publication called the Sunrise Guide. You may know it now, it looks like….
Lisa Belisle: We’ve had Heather on the show before.
Joe Walsh: Good, that’s great. Yeah, Heather and I are good friends. I ended up coming here to help Heather get the Sunrise Guide started and sell advertising. What I found when I was working and meeting all these great small business owners was a super supportive small business community in the Portland area. Everybody’s helping each other out and supporting each other. I found it really inspiring, and I think that I fell in love with Portland.
I think it was falling in love with Portland and also being exposed to all of these sustainable businesses by selling advertising for the Sunrise Guide that really pushed me to want to go into business for myself because I’d been thinking about it for a while. But the question was, how do I figure out how to make a profitable business and benefit the environment at the same time? We had a really tough time finding home cleaning companies to advertise in our guide because they all said they were too busy.
All the green cleaning companies were too busy, so the light bulb went off and I said, “I like to clean and there might be an opportunity there.” I started researching business plans and how that sort of things worked. It was a good fit for me because my father is a residential construction contractor, so I’d be used to being in people’s homes and providing service in people’s home. I was comfortable with that atmosphere, and the idea made sense to me. That’s how I got into it.
Lisa Belisle: What was your original educational background? What did you think you were going to be doing when you were in college?
Joe Walsh: Boy, that’s a great question. First I majored in communication studies because I thought I was going to be on the TV, or on the radio. That was my thing, I wanted to be somehow involved with communication, broadcast communication. I didn’t know if it meant I was actually going to be on the air or if I was going to be in the production studio or whatever, but I was fascinated with television and radio. But that was when I was 18 and things changed pretty quickly when I got into college. I stuck with the communication studies and actually got a bachelor’s degree in it, but my interest started to lean more towards leadership studies and organizational communication, more the organizational and business kind of application of communication. I have a academic minor in leadership studies, too. That was always interesting to me.
Lisa Belisle: You also were part of the … You’re a 2016 graduate of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development’s Top Gun program and the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program at Babson college. You’ve continued this interest in business and leadership in a more, I guess, academic way, and practical.
Joe Walsh: Yeah. I like to think of Green Clean Maine as my MBA program, because I thought of going back to school to get some more formal training in business, but it didn’t seem to make sense because by the time I got Green Clean Maine to a point where it was self-sustaining, which was probably year seven or eight, I realized that I’ve really learned a lot and I can really focus my training and my education on more practical seminar type programs that are going to expand my mind really is what I need to do.
That’s how I’ve continued my education. Top Gun was great for that because it exposed me to people and concepts and ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to, and also helping me to think bigger. I think when you start out… I started the business, I was scrubbing toilets and on my hands and knees scrubbing floors and doing everything from cleaning the showers to doing all the business planning and accounting and all that.
I think when you start from there it can sometimes be difficult to take things to the next level. You have to start to think bigger and think of yourself, I’ve had to learn to think of myself as the owner of a company, not a guy who cleans or even a guy who manages a couple of people. That’s what those programs have really helped me with, is the bigger picture stuff.
Lisa Belisle: Having some experience with men in my life, there’s not necessarily… it doesn’t necessarily follow that you would like to clean. I’m not saying… I know, I said this in such an awkward way. Maybe just not the men that I know love cleaning as much.
Joe Walsh: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: But you said you like to clean.
Joe Walsh: I do. I do. You wouldn’t known it by say looking at my college dorm room, because I don’t think that for me it was always something I actively paid attention to, but when I was a teenager I would spend weekends detailing my car. When I used to work in my dad’s construction business I would take time to clean out the work vans and get everything neat and organized. It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed doing. I always found cleaning to be very cathartic. It really makes you feel good when everything’s clean and neat and organized. It also helps I think clear the mind, too.
There’s actually research that support this. Of course, since I’ve been doing this for so long now I hear a lot about cleaning and there’s a lot of research that actually supports the idea that for some people, actually, mental health therapists will actually tell people to clean as part of their therapy. There is definitely something to that. Yeah, I just enjoy it. I really get satisfaction out of seeing something start out looking one way and then you spend time with it and you can take a step back and look at your work, and there’s a lot of satisfaction with that, seeing everything just so and everything really shining at its best. In a way it’s like a passion for restoring things, I want things to look and feel the best they possibly can. I think that’s probably where that comes from, but I do like it.
Lisa Belisle: I need to back up and say that was a fairly egregious statement on my part. Just because you are male doesn’t mean that you don’t like to clean, but actually I do know men that like to clean. I need to apologize to any man who’s listening because that was a ridiculous thing to say. I’m glad that you like to clean, personally I like to clean too. There is something that is very… I don’t know, something about folding laundry, for example.
Joe Walsh: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: You pull it out, you put something dirty in and by the time it comes out of the dryer it’s clean. You fold it up and then you get to use it again. There’s something very, I don’t know, satisfying about that.
Joe Walsh: It’s very satisfying, yeah. Yeah, I don’t blame you for saying that you don’t know a lot of men who want to clean, because I think it’s true, I don’t think it’s a sexist statement. I don’t know a lot of men who want to clean, and I’m in the business. This is a business that’s definitely, the doers, the people who actually do the work, it’s definitely dominated by women. I do have a couple of men who work for me, but it’s mostly women who work for me, who have the interest in doing the kind of work.
Lisa Belisle: We were referred, and when I say we I mean my household, and I should be clear actually, the man in my life, he actually keeps things nice and neat. He may not love to clean, but he likes things to be tidy and he likes things to be neat. He will clean. We were referred to your business through a designer, a friend of ours, Brent Johnson.
Joe Walsh: I love Brent. Big fan of his work.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, he’s great.
Joe Walsh: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Actually, I think we waited about a year, because we had people who were working with us already, and they were good, before we finally got in touch with your business. It was truly amazing, to be able to… I think I saw the car that was a Green Clean Maine car, this is a tribute to your, I guess, communications skills that you have these cars out there. I made the phone call, I immediately talked to somebody. I immediately got a quote based on the information that I was giving. It was impressive from the very beginning that we were talking to a person, we didn’t have to wait and you had a system in place. There was already a system for just knowing how much it was going to cost.
Joe Walsh: Yeah. First of all thank you for sharing that. I’m super glad to hear that you had such a great experience. That’s exactly the kind of experience I want people to have. I’m really glad to hear that. I am a systems nerd. I love making systems, so that’s something else I love to do. If you put me in a situation I’m going to look for the system that I can make, I can create out of that. So that really came naturally to me, my desire to do that.
It’s not to say that it’s been easy, but my desire to be able to set it up so that people would have a consistent experience from customer to customer to customer is something that I get really excited about doing. I can really keep going on that stuff. I’m glad to hear you had that experience from the beginning. I knew, I set out knowing, that I wanted to build a professional organization. I wanted to make it bigger than just me and a couple of other people cleaning houses.
I all along was looking for ways to systematize things, but I didn’t want it to feel like a big corporation or didn’t want it to feel like a franchise or anything, because it’s not. We have that independent spirit and have been built from the ground up. I also wanted the people who worked in my company to feel like they can be themselves and really relate to people and get to know people. That’s really important to me, but at the same time there’s got to be solid systems behind that to back it up. I’m glad to hear that you had that experience.
Lisa Belisle: It was great because it was also very clear immediately, “This is going to cost this much money, and this is when we will show up, and this is what’s going to happen next.” That makes a big difference because I’ve been fortunate to have people who have helped clean my house for a long time because as a person who works outside the home, married to another person who works outside the home with children, that was something that we chose to prioritize for a long time. I have a lot of experience with people who are willing to help out with that, and it’s varied. Sometimes we have had people who are really good and they communicated really well, and sometimes we would go weeks without people showing up. We always pre-cleaned and then we would pre-clean and we’d wait and there wouldn’t be anybody showing up.
Joe Walsh: Yeah, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Admission, we actually still use your company. We went through the process and what was also great was that your company comes in and does a mandatory thorough… I don’t remember what it’s called.
Joe Walsh: Initial deep cleaning service, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Initial deep cleaning service. It’s like, you want to get people on track and they’re going to start with the grittiest, grimiest, get everything all done so that when the cleaning continues you’re going back and it’s more routine.
Joe Walsh: Yeah, it’s also because I want to be able to guarantee our work, so I am not going to feel like I can guarantee that your house is going to stay looking spick and span if we don’t have the chance to hit the reset button first. I feel like once we’ve put our hands on every surface in your home we’re now responsible for the cleaning because we’ve had the opportunity to get everything to a baseline. Now I can tell you as a customer, I 100% guarantee that we’re going to keep this place spick and span for you and you’re going to love it. That’s why we have to do the deep cleaning first or we just can’t guarantee anything. We have to get into every nook and cranny.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, and it was great because we ended up… because the quote was over the phone, people came into our house and they said, “Well, you know, your tub’s a little bigger than we expected, it’s going to take us a little longer, so is it okay if we go ahead?” We were aware at every step, there weren’t any surprises, “This is how much it’s going to be. This is what you should…” And they were very thorough, they were there for hours doing this, it’s not like we have a huge house, but they were there for a really long time.
Joe Walsh: Even the size of the house doesn’t necessarily dictate how long it would take and neither does…. If it takes a really long time it doesn’t mean, “Oh, your house was super dirty,” or anything, but it’s got to do with how many rooms you have and how much stuff you have and the way the rooms are laid out. There’s a lot that goes into why it would take longer than other things, but yeah we really try and communicate with people along the way.
I believe that if you create good reliable systems that work people will thrive within those systems. I don’t think that if you create really good systems it means that every movement is scripted and people seem stiff and impersonal. I think it’s quite the opposite. I think if you have a really, really solid system in place that your employees know work, that the system works, then they can feel free to act within that system and be themselves and make sure that they focus on the client rather than focus on, “How are we going to get this work done?” Sounds like it worked in your case.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah.
Joe Walsh: I’m glad to hear that.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, it definitely did. Every week, because we’d have our house cleaned every two weeks, and I’m telling you I have literally, because I have three children and I’ve been a doctor for 20 years and I’m very fortunate that I’ve had this sort of help, I have so much experience that it’s very rare that we had had people before that would come in, clean the house and then leave us a nice note and say, “Have a good day.”
Joe Walsh: The notes, the notes.
Lisa Belisle: It’s really great. After enough notes we actually did go on Yelp and leave a positive review, which was something that was asked.
Joe Walsh: That’s great.
Lisa Belisle: You guys follow up via email. I think one of the reasons I like this so much is that I’m also a systems nerd. I feel like there are things that you can put in place, they shouldn’t be…. It’s a nice structure to work within, so you’re not wasting time. If you put something good in place from the beginning, then you don’t have to waste time messing around doing the same thing over and over again in an inefficient way.
Joe Walsh: Yeah, I like to set it and forget it. Nothing in business is truly set it and forget it, you’re constantly revisiting and revising. That’s something I’ve learned along the way. I think when I first started out I thought, “I’m going to build these systems and then I’ll be able to walk away and everything will just be hunky dory.” It doesn’t really work that way, you always have to revisit and revise and check and test, “Is this working? What do we need to change?” But I completely agree with you, you setup that system and then you don’t have to waste mental energy thinking about how to reinvent the wheel every time you have to go this thing, whatever it is that you have to do.
Lisa Belisle: You started out yourself somewhat smallish, but I’ve now seen your cars in lots of places. I know you have different teams all over the place. What is your reach?
Joe Walsh: We serve currently Saco to Freeport and west to Windham. We’re talking about expanding that a little bit farther out. I’ve got just shy of 30 people cleaning. Every day there’s going to be somewhere between 22 and 27 people out cleaning homes and small offices for Green Clean Maine. I’ve got 14 vehicles out on the road I believe, those are the little white cars you see with the logo all around the Portland area. Yeah, that’s our reach now. I can see us getting out to Sebago Lake to the west, that’s a little bit farther than we go now but I can see us getting out there soon. I can see us getting as far south as Kennebunk or Wells, because we’re getting more and more demand from that area, people really wanting us to come down there. I think we’re getting ready to make that leap.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, I think it took us a little while to get on the schedule. Clearly you’re very popular. It seems like whatever it is that you’re doing must appeal to people.
Joe Walsh: Yeah, for us the toughest thing, and I think you’ll hear this from a lot of business owners, is finding good people to do the work. We also have a training process that is rigorous so it takes a while for us to ramp up for staffing to add capacity. Our basic training is three weeks of direct supervised training. We have new people come in and work with a team leader and train hands-on. It’s all supervised and there’s a lot of follow up and a lot of supervision and checking of work, and things like that. Then, after the initial three weeks, there’s another two months of, you’re done with basic training but you’re still being supervised and things. It takes a while for us to really get someone to the point where we know that they’re able to do what we need them to do. That’s sometimes why the wait when people call. You might have to wait a couple of weeks before we can get you on the schedule because it’s a capacity thing for us.
Lisa Belisle: How has it been for you to retain, hire and retain, people who want to do this work and want to do it well?
Joe Walsh: That’s a great question. I think we… I know that we do a good job at this as compared to other people in our industry but it’s still a very high turnover industry. Our average length of employment for people once they get past training is two years. If you take everyone who’s working for me right now, I have some people who have been with me for almost six years, I have some people who have been with me for just a few months. If you average it all out it’s two years. Which in this business is good, that’s a really healthy number, but it’s still a high turnover industry, but each year that number gets higher.
Our goal is to make that average more like four years, that’s where we really want to be. We’re working on that. We are finding success because and finding good people for a few reasons. One is, you can actually make pretty good money working for us as a housekeeper. You’re going to make better money by the end of your first year than you would working in most of the hotels in the area for example, if you’re looking at housekeeping work. We also provide so much training that we find our employees really appreciate the structure and the training. The training program is very structured, again you were talking about systems, we really work hard to make sure everybody gets the same information and that people learn as they go.
We have some great trainers who really can adapt to people’s different learning styles. We get a lot of feedback that our employees appreciate that. We attract people because we’re not corporate, because we’re a smaller company and we have a little bit of a personality I think. We’re really engaged in the local business community in the greater Portland area. We retain people because they can quickly move up in the company, which is not like a lot of entry level jobs. Working for us you start $11 an hour and a lot of entry level jobs like that, you might start at 11 and in 18 months you might be making 11.25, but for us in 18 months you’re probably making $14 or $15 an hour and you probably have a company car. For someone who’s 25, 26, 30 years old to be making $15 an hour plus and have a company car and have paid vacation, these things, it’s a good job. That’s how we end up able to keep people.
Lisa Belisle: Have you been able to make your goal of having a sustainable business model?
Joe Walsh: Yeah. The business in a lot of ways runs itself. It’s what allows me to do things like be interviewed for a podcast on a radio show. It does but one of my big goals for the business is to be one of the few cleaning businesses in the country, the few residential cleaning businesses in the country, I should be specific about that, that offer health insurance. Right now we’re not big enough to be able to really support that financially, but it is a major goal of mine.
In my mind our next big milestone is to be able to offer full scale health benefits for our employees. We used to for a short period of time, there was really generous subsidies for small businesses to offer health coverage and those went away when the Affordable Care Act came into place, but that’s fine because my employees get really good coverage under the Affordable Care Act. They’re able to get the health coverage that they need from some way shape or form with the ACA, but given the current political climate, who knows what’s going to happen with the ACA.
I want my company to be able to provide health benefits if they lose their ACA coverage because quite a few of my employees depend on the subsidies from the ACA to get insurance for themselves and their families. If they lose that I want to be able to swoop in and do it. My goal is that next year, by next year or the year after, we’re able to offer health insurance. That to me is when I’ll feel like, “Okay, now we’re really a sustainable long term business that will be able to keep going for decades,” once I feel like we’ve reached that mass where we can actually do that. That’s to me the last big milestone for us.
Lisa Belisle: I have no doubt that you will be able to reach that goal. You seem like you’ve accomplished really great things in the last 10 years and I hope that your team continues to do a great job on my house. I have no doubt that they will there either because they really, I guess, call out team Ashley, that’s the people I’ve been working with.
Joe Walsh: That’s great. I’m glad to hear that.
Lisa Belisle: They’ve done a really nice job. I’ve been speaking with Joe Walsh who is the founder and CEO of Green Clean Maine, an environmentally-friendly home cleaning company serving great Portland since 2007. I’ll also say you guys have a fun Instagram feed, so thank you for that too.
Joe Walsh: Yeah, check us out @GreenCleanMaine. I have to make a plug for that, we have such a talented photographer we’re working with on that. She’s also a client of ours. We’ve been so lucky to be able to have her help us out, so definitely check it out.
Lisa Belisle: Thanks Joe.
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Lisa Belisle: It is my great pleasure that have in the studio with me today Amy and Allie Smith. Amy Smith is the founder and executive director of Healthy Homeworks. Her daughter, Allie Smith, is the organization’s director of development. Healthy Homeworks works with landlords and tenants in downtown Lewiston to improve the quality of living conditions. Volunteers can also learn to build beds at the organization’s factory and receive beds of their own after completing the program. Thanks so much for coming in.
Allie Smith: We are so happy to be here
Amy Smith: Thank you for having us.
Lisa Belisle: I think you are officially our first bed related guests, so that’s kind of cool. But I knew you both first from Yarmouth where you no longer, either of you, live. Somehow you took an interesting left turn when you left Yarmouth. Amy, tell me about that?
Amy Smith: A left turn, yeah, or right depending on direction.
Lisa Belisle: Sure, of course.
Amy Smith: This whole turn started in 2014. Our kids had all grown and flown the coop, and our middle daughter was working Portland and struggling to find housing. She was looking at lots of different departments, they were all either very expensive or really not that nice. She really had trouble finding a middle ground for housing. She exposed us to the housing crunch that was going on in town, because we’re up in Yarmouth, what do we know about this?
We had this confluence of learning a little bit about the housing market, being ready to sell our home and downsize, and started thinking, “Well, you know, maybe we’d be okay landlords, so maybe we should buy a multi-family and try that out. Live there, try city living and see how that all would work for us.” That’s what we did. We found a pretty rough triple-decker right downtown. I went half time at my consulting job and managed the rehab of the property over the course of 2015. That was my trial by fire and boy did I learn a lot, but I think the most important thing I learned was, number one, how much I loved that project, loved doing the work, and also how amazing it is to actually revive one of these grand old buildings and create really nice living space.
Lisa Belisle: Talk to me about the housing crunch and how it impacted…. You talked about your middle child, so she was I’m guessing in her twenties, somewhere.
Amy Smith: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Talk to me a little bit about what you found out.
Amy Smith: What we found out is that the rental rates were rising precipitously. I think Portland had the largest, fastest rise in rents a couple years ago in the country, something like 17%. At the same time a lot of people were getting… The rents were going up, people were getting squeezed out of the affordable spaces, and a lot of people, because the prices were going up, there weren’t a lot of people who could afford to renovate the places that needed renovation.
There was a lot of movement in the area and we thought, “Well, maybe we could be helpful.” The piece that we didn’t understand at the time was the impact on the lower income population and what was happening with affordable housing and housing projects in town. That’s another thing that we started to learn about once we started renovating the property.
I don’t know how tuned in you are to affordable housing and how all that works, but I had absolutely no clue what the need was, had no idea how it actually worked, so when somebody came to me and said, “So, are you going to be accepting section 8 vouchers?” I was like, “What the heck is that? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Over time, I started to learn a little bit more about it and understand what a complicated system it is, again how acute the need is.
Lisa Belisle: Allie what’s your intersection with this? I know you’re now the director of development, but from what I understand you graduated from college in 2011, you worked abroad, you were in DC. You were living a very different life. Why did you decide to come back here?
Allie Smith: I was very fortunate early in my career to have the experience of exchanging my labor and work directly for only housing and food. That was in another country, and what I learned through that experience was what that reward felt like to get, to have my personal motivations be so aligned with the motivations of an organization, that all I really needed in return was basic living security. When I returned to the United States and started working in corporate and creative spaces in DC, which are always spaces that I have really enjoyed and that, really, the image of my life that I had projected to myself, that was based a lot in creative success and material success.
Over time I came to realize how deeply missing that other element of true alignment between my motivations and top priorities, and what the top priorities of an organization were. I came to realize that working somewhere that had a bottom line that was based at the end of the day, really, in profit didn’t sit right with me. It was hard to recognize that gap. I think it’s always hard to recognize gaps between the things that we think are going to fulfill us and the things that actually do.
When my mother started doing this work and we started talking about it and brainstorming on the phone, I came to realize that this was such a unique opportunity to not only support my family and the people that I love, but to do so in a way that positively impacts the lives of other people and to move back to Maine, a place that I love and a place where my family is. I think people wait their whole lives for an opportunity like that, and to me it was so clearly the right choice that the decision made itself.
Lisa Belisle: It seems like it would have been easy, Amy, for you and your husband to just find a house, make it nice, live there, keep doing the consulting work. Not everybody gets drawn to deal with these bigger issues that you were faced with and really wanted to find more about.
Amy Smith: Well, I guess you’re right, but it was not altruistic to start, I have to be very honest about that. Again, I discovered this passion for doing this work and I wanted to figure out how to make that my job, rehabbing these old properties and bringing them back. Initially I wasn’t really thinking about affordable housing, but when I started to look into, “Well, what would that take?” I realized that I had obviously very limited experience, which was, I rehabbed one triple decker, right? And very limited money, because I had just rehabbed one triple decker.
So I tried to figure out where I could afford to do the work, where there was a lower cost of entry in Portland, and also where could I find the best leverage, where could I make the least amount of resources go the furthest. Started looking into affordable housing and realized, “Boy, if you bought a big old building and rehabbed it, you could house families and per unit you could give more people better living conditions.” It was this progression, and then I thought, “Well, and can you make money at that?” Because now this was going to be my new job.
It was quite a journey, trying to wrap my head around that, but at the end of the day it was like, “Yeah, I like this combination. I can do what I love. I can have a nice social bottom line and hopefully just make a modest return on that.” Then the question is, so where are you going to do this? There were two other places that had triple deckers that were close enough, and that was Biddeford and Lewiston. I was talking to friends about this and again this weird confluence of, “Gee, I’m thinking about doing this work in Lewiston,” and my friend said, “Gee, have you read Catherine Besteman’s novel about all the Somali immigrants in Lewiston and how they’ve changed the fabric up there and all the wonderful things that are happening in Lewiston, the challenges?”
I said, “No, I didn’t know about that.” I read this book, which is a great book. It’s by Catherine Besteman, who’s an anthropology professor at Colby. I can go into more detail on that if you’re interested, but it convinced me to look really hard at Lewiston, to meet the people, to understand the market and the challenges. That community is remarkable. The people of Lewiston, and I mean the entire community, immigrants, everybody, let’s call them New Mainers, I don’t know what to call the other people who’ve been there forever, Old Mainers, are fabulous. The city council, the city officials, the housing authority, all these people are so dedicated to trying to elevate the quality of living, and it does need elevating in Lewiston’s downtown core, that I was convinced that this was a community that I really wanted to become part of and really help with that ongoing effort.
Lisa Belisle: Allie, growing up in Yarmouth how much did you know of Lewiston?
Allie Smith: I knew nothing. I had never set foot in Lewiston prior to June of this year. I did read the same book by Catherine Besteman, which she purchased and sent to me as part of her efforts to convince me to come her, and it worked spectacularly, as most things that you put your mind to do. But really I had very little context outside of school competitions and hearing the name referenced, but I will freely admit that living in Yarmouth growing up I didn’t see much else of Maine, let alone the world.
Our family, and my mother in particular, did make a very strong effort to expose us to other cultures and other spaces, but at the end of the day when you live in a town like Yarmouth you don’t, or at least I didn’t, tend to venture too far outside of my immediate concerns as a middle schooler and high schooler, which tend to be pretty self-directed concerns, or at least they were for me. Really it’s been my first exposure, and I have to agree and amplify everything that my mother has said. I have never been part of community like the community in Lewiston, and I feel so grateful to have found a sort of home there, and so thankful to the community for being so welcoming to us.
Lisa Belisle: Where did you live when you were abroad?
Allie Smith: I lived in Thailand for two years.
Lisa Belisle: Did you find any differences, similarities between those communities and the communities, the community you’re working with now?
Allie Smith: I think that it’s always a productive challenge to work across cultures because it really challenges your assumptions. One of the assumptions that comes top of mind to me is our understanding of time. Here we are always on a schedule and we always have the next block in our calendar, and if you’re late that’s almost a strike against your own personal value and it also implicates something to another person that you’re late to, that you don’t care enough about them to be there on time, you don’t value their time.
In Thailand at least that relationship is incredibly different. I had the opportunity to not only work with but also manage individuals who came from a very different cultural background than I did and had a very different understanding. I think being put in a position where you need to expand your own sense of what empathy means and really question the assumptions you use to navigate your life is so productive, not just in terms of having more positive and effective relationships with those people, but in terms of coming back into your own culture and really examining, “What are the assumptions that I allow to go unchecked in my life?” I will say that experience I feel has greatly aided me in being able to gain a peak into what it’s like to assimilate to a new culture and all of the moving goal posts and all of the confusion that is inherent in that.
Lisa Belisle: Amy, where did the bed come in as sort of this…
Amy Smith: It’s sort of this orthogonal… Wait a minute, what’s with the beds?
Lisa Belisle: Yes, exactly.
Amy Smith: In fact, that was our first marketing flyer, it was like, “What’s up with the beds?” In the course of looking at properties in Lewiston we went through dozens and dozens of the downtown housing stack, because again I knew how to do one kind of building, so those were the building I was looking at. It was so striking to us how many people didn’t have a bed. Almost two a person, people were sleeping on the floor, on mats, on deflated air mattresses. Large families, 10, 12 member families with two beds.
It was this weird thing that we kept noticing. As we tried to figure out, “How could we really have sort of a maximum impact with, again, our limited resources?” It became pretty clear that the tensions that existed in the low-income housing had a lot to do with people not understanding their roles in the equation. Landlords and tenants maybe not having the same level of understanding of what it meant to live in and care for a building. There were issues that came up with that, and the bed is a great example because people were sleeping on the floors, they were dragging mattresses in off the street when they could find them. This was causing bedbug infestations, and then it’s the landlord’s responsibility to get rid of the infestation, but the tenant needs to play a role in that.
The combination of the living conditions, the tensions that had existed that to my mind really was a lack of information and shared resources, we thought, “You know what, we need to come up with a non-profit that can help with this relationship between the landlords and tenants, and that’s a big lofty goal. So then again, what about the beds? We thought, “Okay, we’re going to try to create this network of positive engagement with this community in particular. What could we do that would have immediate impact on the quality of people’s daily lives who were living in this housing?” The first thought was, “Okay, well let’s create this network, let’s get some buying power going for the landlords and tenants so that they can purchase beds. Let’s just start there.”
I started looking into that, and beds are expensive. At one point I looked at my math and my figures and I said, “You know what, we should just build beds. We can do it cheaper. We can set up shop right there in Lewiston maybe. Maybe we could even create a job training, job opportunity there,” and we decided to just go for it. That’s where the beds come in. What we’ve been astonished by is the level of interest. The minute we decided to do this, we put out a little flyer, we setup up shop at Build Maine, which was a trade show in Lewiston.
There was so much interest and our waiting list started to grow because what we said was, “For 16 hours of labor you can come work in a shop, build a bed for yourself plus one or two extras, and then you can go home with your bed frame plus a mattress with a bedbug encasement.” That was our operating assumption, 16 hours for a twin, 20 for a full. Call us and we’ll put you on the list. That’s kind of what happened. We set up shop right in downtown, the paper mill is walking distance to all this housing stock, because the housing stocks exists because of the mill.
All these houses that we talk about and that we work in, a lot of them were built by the businesses that were in the mills to house their workers, many of whom anecdotally were also large immigrant families. It’s been this whole progression for us, but now we’ve got this toehold to positive engagement space, and we’ve been so fortunate to work with an amazing array of folks to make it a success and help promote the fact that that opportunity exists. I’d love to have Allie talk a little bit about the experience that people have when they volunteer.
Allie Smith: Yeah. The core premise of this program if you look at outcomes, the most tangible outcome is that a person who did not have a bed to sleep in, did not have a healthy place to sleep, now has a bed to sleep in. I think that, anecdotally, if we all take a minute to imagine what it might feel like to wake up every day on the floor or on a couch, as opposed to in our bed, that we can kind of emotionally feel what the gap is between those two experiences.
I want to highlight here too that if you are sleeping on the floor, if you are sleeping on a couch, that is fundamentally intended to be a temporary state of being, nobody really plans to be under those conditions indefinitely. As time wears on and you wake up each day and you’re immediately reminded of this gap between your expectation for yourself and the reality that you’re living, that is a hard emotional and mental place to start your day, to be reminded of something that you’ve yet to accomplish. I think the gap between being on the floor and being in a bed, that’s fairly self-evident.
The bigger gap and what we’re trying to give people the experience of is between sleeping on the floor and waking up in a bed that is a testament to your ability to learn something new, to gain a new skill, to succeed in a new environment, to build new relationships. In addition to this work with Healthy Home Works I also work part time at a youth shelter in Lewiston where I provide educational support to youth who are homeless or at risk of homelessness or are otherwise alienated from their families. What I see time and again in these relationships and in having these conversations with youth is that the biggest gap is not between their abilities and the opportunities they’re seeking, it is between their sense of self and their self esteem and the ability and the motivation and the confidence to pursue those opportunities.
In that context as well as in this context what we are really aiming to do is to provide people with an opportunity to succeed in a new environment, to gain that confidence and to really feel like, “Wow, I do have the capacity to improve my own life if I’m given a chance.” Our program is oriented entirely towards that. Folks don’t need any level of woodworking experience to do the program. We’ve had people with ranges of experiences, qualifications, disabilities. You name it, we are open to everyone. From the minute someone walks in the door it is an environment that is based in positive reinforcement and the value of growth first and foremost.
The first activity that people complete is they built what’s called a laminate, which is the primary piece in the headboard. That serves as a diagnostic for us, we can really understand based on that process what someone’s manual dexterity is like, what their understanding of spatial relations is like, how active their listening skills are. We can extrapolate all these things about their learning style and really meet them where they’re at, and then intentionally structure their time with us so that they feel a very real sense of progression.
The folks that we interact with, they get this message from society repeatedly, whether it’s because they’re recovering from substance addiction, whether it’s because they’ve been unemployed for a long time, whether they’re new to the country and struggling and working hard to overcome cultural difference, to adapt to new working environments. Whatever the case may be, they get this message that their labor isn’t valued and that they’re not really expected to learn new things and to grow and to contribute in a fundamental way to their own well being. We really want to counter that narrative and give them the opportunity to really feel like they’ve succeeded, and then to go back to that gap that we were talking about before, the difference of being on the floor and being in a bed, to wake up not only rested and with the physical and mental obvious benefits that come from sleeping well.
But to wake up and be immediately confronted not with things that you haven’t accomplished yet but with such a tangible reminder of the creative power of your hands and your own ability to not only improve your own life, but also to improve the lives of others, because we’re very clear with people who are working with us, yes we’re building this bed for you and we’re also building this bed for your neighborhood who’s across the table from you, who you’re getting to know. The third bed is going to an organization that provides housing first services for people who are immediately homeless, and that’s the other person who’s going to benefit from this. To give them that sense of community engagement and to show them their ability to positively impact the lives of others as well.
Lisa Belisle: Amy what types of numbers are we talking about? How many beds have you built to date?
Allie Smith: To date last year we gave away 17 beds and we sold 51 beds. That’s between June and December of last year. Our goal for this year is give away 90 beds and sell 180, because the way this works right is it’s the money that comes in from the sale of the wholesale or retail beds that can fund the program so that we can afford to giveaway the beds. Costs us about $250 to give a bed to an earn-a-bed volunteer, between the frame, the mattress and the bedbug encasement.
The math kind of surprised us because we, of course, knew that we would need money in order to give the package, but we didn’t think about the other end which was we need orders for beds, so there’s something for the volunteers to work on. Towards the end of the year we said, “Oh okay, so now what we really need to focus on is selling beds so that we have the work and the money needed to continue the program.” Last year was like a pilot for us. We really just wanted to prove the concept, that we could have anybody come in, they could succeed at building a bed, we would deliver and set up the bed and everybody would be happy and it would be a very positive experience. That’s what we’ve proven so far. We also have developed our wholesale market a little bit.
We got an order at the end of last year from Avesta Housing here in Portland. They’re building a new housing first facility for veterans, a 30-bed facility out on Bishop Street. They purchased their beds from us, which is very exciting. Preble Street is another big customer. The way we work with non-profits like that is we sell them the beds at wholesale so that they can maximize their dollars and get the maximum number of beds to folks. Then currently FX Marcotte up in Lewiston is carrying our beds and Hub is going to start carrying them in the next month or so.
Our goal is to get to the point where we can take 10 volunteers a month, 10 builders, 10 earn-a-bed a month, so give away 120 beds a year and then be producing and selling 360, 380 beds. Once we get to that point then we really feel like we can start creating paid jobs, again for this very same population, because now we’ve got a list. I think we’ve got 24 people through the program so far. Delightful, come on back. They want to come back and volunteer without the promise of a bed, just to help. It’s fun.
Amy Smith: It is.
Allie Smith: It’s a really fun environment. We would love that because that’s a lot of beds, 120 people, 120 households to be getting beds. We’d also like to get to the point where we can take repeat builders, because right now we have to limit to one bed per household, but then once a builder completes our program they also can buy beds wholesale from us. We’re trying to get as many families and people into safe sleeping arrangements. The numbers, I don’t know if those numbers seem big or small to you, but we feel really good about the impact that it’s had so far.
Lisa Belisle: I encourage people who are listening, if you’re a listener and you’re interested in this program, we’ll put a link to Healthy Homeworks on our Show Notes page. This is a great program. I appreciate you both coming and you both spending the time to do this. We’ve speaking with Amy Smith and also with Allie Smith. Amy is the founder and executive director of Healthy Homeworks, and her daughter, Allie Smith, is the organization’s director of development. I really wish you all the best. I’m sure you will reach your goals because I can tell that you’re both extremely passionate and motivated in this project. Thank you.
Allie Smith: Thank you
Amy Smith: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio show number 290, Cleaner Homes and Beds For All. Our guests have included Joe Walsh, and Amy and Allie Smith. For more information on our guests and extended interviews visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page, follow me on Twitter as @drlisabelisle and see my running travel food and wellness photos as @bountiful1 on Instagram.
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Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is made possible with the support of Berlin City Honda, The Rooms by Harding Lee Smith, Maine magazine, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music have been provided by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producer is Paul Koenig, our assistant producer is Shelby Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano and Lisa Belisle. For more information on our host production team, Maine m
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are some highlights from this week’s program.