Compost co-op, which helps previously incarcerated rebuild lives, hoping to offer housing

  • Wolf Valentin, a member/owner of The Compost Cooperative in Greenfield, at work. Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2020 4:02:08 PM

GREENFIELD — Throughout the years, Wolf Valentin’s life was filled with chaos, crime and alcoholism.

“My life spiraled and I found myself incarcerated for about two decades,” Valentin said. “I didn’t learn from my mistakes. I didn’t learn my lessons.”

That changed a half-dozen years ago when, while still incarcerated, he met people who would eventually impact his life.

“I needed to change,” he said. “I needed to do something different. It began with me saying ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Then, I met them.”

Revan Schendar had started a program at the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction. She was teaching sociology at Greenfield Community College at the time and began bringing her students to the jail to work with inmates. They began having intellectual exchanges and started a think tank, meeting every week for years.

“They worked together on different projects, including art and an annual art show,” she said. “They built a community and then started talking about how to create a way for inmates to make a meaningful living wage doing important work once they were released.

“Our co-op expert, Andrew Stackchiw, led a cooperative academy at the jail, where (inmates) helped develop a business plan and started hauling food scraps,” Schendar added.

The Compost Cooperative launched in 2018, and there are currently three member/owners: Schendar, Trenda Loftin, who is a friend of Schendar’s, and Valentin, the newest member/owner as of Tuesday.

The co-op is a worker-owned business with customers who are “valued investors” in the community. Schendar said the co-op is committed to building with others a local economic infrastructure that is socially just, economically sustainable and environmentally sound. The mission of the group is driven by racial and environmental justice, and worker/owners haul food scraps for residential and commercial customers in Greenfield and Whately to turn into soil-enriching compost.

“Along with living-wage jobs, we build ownership and opportunity among people coming out of jail and prison,” Schendar said.

Valentin said he had to have a lot of patience to become part of The Compost Cooperative, though he ended up being fast-tracked to ownership.

“Someone mentioned it to me pre-COVID, but said there wasn’t a place for me at that time,” he said. “She asked if I could wait, and I wanted it then, but I realized ‘nows’ had always gotten me nowhere. A few months later, things started happening and I was told all I had to do was commit and show up. I did, and this has been a miracle in my life. No matter how bad my day or night was, I showed up.”

The co-op continues to seek apprentice worker/owners — those interested, who have been previously incarcerated, must first work for one year as an apprentice hauling compost, providing customer service and performing outreach in the community. Candidates must have a valid Massachusetts driver’s license and an eagerness to learn about co-op and anti-racist business practices.

Loftin said the pathway to ownership includes people asking a lot of questions, bringing ideas and showing up. She said anyone who becomes a member/owner is involved in all decision-making. Member/owners encourage women, LGBTQ and people of color to apply.

Schendar said she knows that re-entry into society from jail and prison can be a monumental challenge, and the team works with those who are interested by developing flexible work schedules and skills.

“Sometimes people have to work with very different, sometimes very restrictive parole and probation schedules, so they have to have flexibility,” she said.

Schendar said there are currently three member/owners, as well as two others who help and consult and a third who is being considered for becoming a member/owner.

Housing on the horizon

Loftin said the cooperative is also looking at buying a multi-family home in Greenfield to house member/owners who are released from jail and then find it difficult to find affordable and secure housing.

“We’ve worked with 10 formerly incarcerated people and nine of them ended up homeless or housing insecure,” Loftin said. “We realized we wanted to do something about that, so we’re trying to raise $400,000, so that we can buy a property outright, or at least start with a mortgage and then pay it off. It will be a housing cooperative for our member/owners.”

She said the group has been looking at properties and has its eye on a four-unit building. They hope to purchase a property by the end of 2020.

“We’ve got a small group with big ideas,” Loftin said.

Loftin said the goal is to have a down payment of $70,000 by the end of September and another $100,000 of the $400,000 by the middle of October for renovations. They hope to raise the entire $400,000 by the end of the year so that they can pay off the mortgage. The Compost Cooperative has currently raised $11,497.

Loftin said rents will be affordable for those who end up living there.

The group is raising money on GoFundMe at bit.ly/35MHYLn. People can also donate by sending a check made out to The Compost Cooperative to: The Compost Cooperative, P.O. Box 792, Greenfield, MA 01302.

For more information, visit thecompostcooperative.com. The cooperative can also be found on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Contact the cooperative at thecompostcooperative@gmail.com.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.



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