Mile High Workshop: Rebuilding Lives Through Work

While some states continue to struggle to create jobs and attract talent, Colorado is a bright spot. Its economy is booming and the state consistently finds itself in lists of best places to live. And yet, there is still suffering in a state of natural beauty. Consider the following: one out of 8 people in Colorado live in poverty.

The challenge to find work is especially acute for the formerly incarcerated. Recently released offenders often feel as though they have little choice but to return to a life of crime. Not surprisingly, the state’s recidivism rate stands at roughly 50 percent. Rather than sit idly, one organization is showing that it is entirely possible to integrate folks back into society through the dignity found in work.

The Mile High Workshop is a social enterprise that includes wood working, laser engraving, packaging and assembly services for a variety of different clients and local businesses. But what sets the Mile High Workshop apart is that is specifically employs those looking to enter the workforce after struggling with addictions, homelessness and incarceration.

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MHW teaches skills to the poor and homeless of Denver. | Photo: Preston Utley

Andy Magel oversees the workshop’s day-to-day operations, but he often finds himself meeting with potential investors and partners. Magel tells Opportunity Lives that part of the Mile High Workshop’s success is working with the private and public sectors, as well as the faith-based community. This collaboration is responsible for bringing out different perspectives while instilling greater accountability and transparency in the social enterprise.

Magel is excited about the workshop’s new strategic partnership with REDF, a California-based nonprofit with a similar mission of helping ex-convicts find gainful employment. REDF recently announced a national expansion that will include a presence in nearly half a dozen cities, including Denver.

“REDF is excited about this national expansion because we are proving that our model works,” president and CEO Carla Javits told Opportunity Lives. “The fact is that many people who are seen as unemployable can, with the right skills, training and support, enter the workforce and make a positive contribution.” Javits says the national expansion will position REDF to eventually employ around 50,000 people over the next five years through partnerships with groups like Mile High Workshop.

Magel says REDF’s experience and institutional know-how will help Mile High Workshop as it works to expand in Denver. The “traditional charity model is in disrepair,” Magel says bluntly. What’s needed, he argues, is a greater emphasis on character formation and equipping those in need with the skills to enter the workforce and eventually no longer need to rely on charities for survival.

This was the case for Brad, a suburban Denver man who couldn’t find work after spending time in prison for a sexual offence. Brad told Opportunity Lives that even after counseling and reintegrating himself into a church community, he continued to struggle trying to find steady employment. Mile High Workshop gave him a job when others would not.

Brad says he considers himself “incredibly blessed to be a part of the Mile High Workshop,” which has been a “source of support and encouragement.” What’s more, as man in his mid-60s, Brad is thankful to God that he can work indoors and sit on a stool to do something he thoroughly enjoys.

“For the folks that have messed up and want to move forward in a positive matter, this place is a real blessing,” he said. “They give you the support and provide you with a way to get back on your feet…. I am incredibly grateful.”

Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @IzzyOrtega.

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