In high school, I’d wake up at an ungodly hour to ride the public bus with about 30 strangers – most of them barely speaking, barely awake and barely functioning. The bus would arrive in Sand City around 8am, silent except for the motor’s low grumble and some chatter from a group in the front, wearing brightly colored shirts that read, “Hope.”
Some were seated and speaking in simple sentences; others were in wheelchairs, squeezing out smiles. The group would stop at the corner of Contra Costa Street and Del Monte Boulevard and disappear inside the Hope Services headquarters.
I’d run into them in other places: cleaning the Monterey High campus, picking up litter on Coastal Cleanup Day, maintaining Highway 1. To me, it looked like volunteer work, not day jobs – but I was wrong about that.
Hope is dedicated to teaching, employing and helping those with intellectual disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome. It’s been servicing the Central Coast area for 61 years. Yet throughout my years in Monterey County, I remained close to – but entirely separated from – the Hope workers, glimpsing them in action without thinking about their place in the community.
The intellectually disabled are sometimes seen as a burden, incapable of working and entirely reliant on their caregivers, says George Molano, Hope’s district director for Monterey County. Hope aims to change that perception, making the intellectually disabled more visible, and educating and employing them.
“They can literally sit in their homes collecting Social Security checks,” Molano says, “but they don’t want to do that. They want to work.”
Hope is a nonprofit, but it operates like a business. Waste-to-Wages, a series of programs that recycles mattresses, box springs, clothing and electronic waste, runs on the labor of hundreds of intellectually disabled Hope employees paid minimum wage or a little more, depending on the job. “This sort of employment at least gives them some freedom and independence,” Molano says, “while helping out the community.”
Hope’s most innovative feat is its electronic waste (or E-Waste) recycling program, a branch of Waste-to-Wages in which its workforce recycles old electronics at facilities within California.
E-Waste is what Molano calls a “social enterprise,” in which the profits are recycled back into the community. It was launched out of necessity when the state stopped adjusting the funds allocated to Hope’s Monterey County district for inflation, Molano says, and has stagnated at $6 million since – not enough to sustain Hope’s services.
Adding E-Waste to Waste-to-Wages was an ideal solution. “It had to be sustainable – not just in an environmental sense, but also in the sense that it stays within the States,” Molano says.
Hope works with a U.S.-based, certified recycling company ECS, which ensures no recycling material is shipped or handled offshore. That makes Hope stand out against other electronic waste programs that ship materials overseas.
I check out the facilities one day during the workers’ lunch break. Glistening piles of computer parts are organized in boxes, waiting to be shipped off and melted down to recover precious metals. Molano points to a large box filled with computer thingamajigs. “That’s about $200 worth of copper,” he says.
Technology is constantly producing new electronic goods and rendering old ones obsolete, producing a stream of hazardous waste that can’t be safely landfilled due to toxic components such as chromium and lead. The E-Waste program keeps that stuff out of the environment, generating good PR for tech companies and revenue for Hope.
A good portion of the E-Waste revenue cycles into the pockets of the intellectually disabled workers who do the disassembly, elevating their sense of self-worth and community connection in the process. It’s a reminder that just because Hope runs like a business doesn’t mean it has no heart.