Members of the DON ReClaim! team below their new mural on ReClaim!’s Croton Avenue, New Castle warehouse and storefront.
In efforts to spread the word about the keystone work done to protect the environment in our Pennsylvania communities, WHE will be highlighting a series of local vendors who prioritize sustainability in coming months using the Sustainable Business Spotlight. In September, WHE took a trip to New Castle – the historic county seat of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, an hour north of Pittsburgh – to learn about the work of Disability Options Network (DON) DON ReClaim!
Reclaim! is a subsidiary of the larger Disability Options Network, a Center for Independent Living (CIL) and disability rights organization fighting for accessible and independent living options; DON ReClaim! provides resources to those with disabilities at the systemic level. The organization offers skills and technical training, transitional and support services, and other programming in addition to its nonprofit retail store housed by deconstructing homes and receiving of donations. Over the last few years, DON ReClaim! has joined in efforts with the Lawrence County Redevelopment Authority to assist with the removal of blighted properties, “reclaim” salvageable construction materials from historic nineteenth and twentieth century buildings, and revitalize land by constructing new, accessible housing. DON ReClaim! was created in 2019 to provide a rehabilitation site for these salvageable materials, with the goal to provide a community outlet for job skills development while simultaneously making DON’s housing restoration efforts more affordable and sustainable.
A variety of items on display as you enter the warehouse and outlet store.
Organizations aiming to reuse and repurpose used materials like DON ReClaim! have become increasingly pivotal in battling climate change and waste as humans’ material footprint on the environment continues to grow. In a study published in 2020, researchers found the construction industry reached the highest ever share of global carbon dioxide emissions recorded to date, making up 38% of total process-related carbon dioxide emissions – illustrating that the construction industry has a significant role to play in the fight to save our planet and improve the livelihood of future generations. Luckily, groups like DON ReClaim! continue to innovate, to not only give back and build strength among their communities, but also save our planet.
Immediately upon entering DON ReClaim!’s warehouse and material outlet in downtown New Castle, you can see the care taken by DON employees to highlight the authentic heart of their town. Not only does the storefront brandish an impressive mural painted by a local artist, but it displays eye-catching reclaimed pieces from historic buildings – artwork using old steel and wiring, antique brass doorknobs, kitchen and bath fixtures, even old mason jars that have been painted and filled with flowers.
Another view of ReClaim!’s storefront and front door on Croton Avenue – featuring a Doggy Drinking Station.
Ashley Stevenson, DON ReClaim!’s Director of Community Reclamation, took us on a tour of the 30,000 sq. feet warehouse and storefront that houses the materials ReClaim! repurposes. DON ReClaim! has a diverse array of goods available for sale and set aside for new projects, including not only materials for remodels and rebuilds of homes, but also new household fixtures, light fixtures, artwork, etc. DON ReClaim! also partners with local businesses to gather an array of different reusable materials, and government entities to funnel resources into projects that communities need most.
“We accept a wide range of home improvement donations, one being hardware … We even have a dragonfly art piece constructed out of recycled ceiling fan blades, an antique bed post, drawer knobs, and a wire [available for sale],” Ashley tells us, showing us around the store. “These reclaimed materials not only are repurposed or made into new builds; they can be reused for so many things, diverting from the waste streams, and extending their embodied energy. Having businesses, economic development partners, and others that value this and want to see it succeed [is] vital.”
A dragonfly made entirely of repurposed materials – including fan blades, a stairway banister, and electrical wire – by a DON employee.
When it comes to repurposing materials, DON ReClaim! not only aims to decrease the environmental impact of construction and reconstruction, but to preserve the integrity of New Castle’s historic buildings through deconstruction. Ashley explains that climate and waste mitigation were a complementary result of DON ReClaim!’s work, saying, “In the beginning, it was much more of a focus on how we could help low-income households repurpose materials and even make repairs and upgrades to the old housing stock in this region using reclaimed materials. [But], [w]e of course are focused on lessening the harmful impacts to the environment of construction and demolition waste and the disposable society we live in. Up to 25% of material in a traditional residential structure can be readily reused, while up to 70% of material can be recycled …. Aside from giving used building materials a ‘new life cycle’ [we] help create green jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy from manufacturing, transportation, maintenance, etc. and lower the need for virgin resources… That does impact our business practices and goals each day.”
DON ReClaim!’s keystone jobs building and the technical training opportunities that result from their focus to reuse and repurpose old materials in the New Castle community shows meaningful environmental action need not always be limited to mitigating the environmental justice issue at hand – in fact, achieving meaningful and lasting change is bolstered by utilizing a holistic approach that focuses on addressing community justice and environmental justice needs at the same time.
DON ReClaim!’s “circular” initiatives not only take unused materials out of landfills and repurposes them to provide housing, affordable furnishings, and other hybrid materials, but the organization also provides job opportunities and transitional job skills training for individuals. The program, in addition gives those completing probation at the Lawrence County Adult Probation Department allowing the opportunity for individuals to complete their volunteer community service hours in the retail store. DON ReClaim! appears to have a unique, holistic community impact by limiting waste while also improving social determinants of health.
A DON employee and tour lead shows us one of the new affordable homes being constructed.
We were also fortunate to receive a drive-through tour of some of the project’s DON ReClaim! is involved in throughout the New Castle community. The organization is a fixture in their region, working with and for the residents of Southwestern Pennsylvania to improve their access to affordable housing, food security, and a clean and safe environment.
DON ReClaim! appears to both make a net positive C02 impact by reclaiming unused building resources, while also striving to improve social determinants of health throughout local communities. WHE team members were astonished and excited to see the sheer number of initiatives DON is heading to support and strengthen the communities they serve. Among many other efforts, DON collaborated with residents to create and maintain a community garden to combat food insecurity and built thirteen new affordable, disability-accessible housing units on previously blighted land.
A completed residential home, built by DON just a few years earlier, is one of the 13 the organization has construted in the area thus far. Many of them, as is the case with this model, already house residents.
DON is also leading the way in hemp building technology. In fact, the organization planned and built Pennsylvania’s first Hemp House in collaboration with Parsons University’s Healthy Materials Lab in New York City – and over the weekend before we arrived, DON was excited to welcome the first homeowner into the home Project PA Hemp Home demonstrates how hemp-based building materials could revolutionize the way Pennsylvanians, and those around the world, construct and buy homes. Hemp, which was grown in DON’s Hemp Test Acres Program, was used to create HempWood™ flooring which was installed in the home. Hemp hurd (the inner woody core of the stalk) was then mixed with lime and water to create hemplime (or hempcrete), a non-structural, biocompaste insulation material. Hempcrete fills all the exterior and interior walls, finished inside with hemp and lime plaster and on the exterior with rough sawn Hemlock boards – all of which are locally sourced materials, which also decreases the overall footprint of such a structure.
The first Hemp House in Pennsylvania, designed by Parsons University’s Healthy Materials Lab and built by DON ReClaim!, finished construction in 2022. The first resident in the home moved in just days prior to our visit.
When used as a building material, hemp also offers a slew of benefits, including but not limited to acting as a natural air purifier; insulating structures better than traditional formaldehyde and other chemical formulas, which results in significant savings on heating and cooling costs; and naturally retarding flame and microbes, which eliminates the need for using toxic chemicals. More funding from local and state government entities would help expand affordable housing in the southwestern Pennsylvania region.
Hemp, a botanical class of Cannabis sativa, is baled and then processed to form pellets that can then be compressed to form sturdy and efficient building materials.
As we moved from DON’s community garden to affordable accessible housing units; Project PA Hemp House; a historic circa 1920 five story hotel being renovated to house affordable accessible apartment units; an old train station and caboose that will soon be a whiskey distillery – it is clear DON has positively shaped the way their community grows and connects. Not only does is it true DON’s disability services are visible and well-respected – advertised on a billboard here, a yard sign there – every person we spoke with there seemed genuinely hopeful and excited about the future of the region. In a country plagued by so many systemic problems, organizations like DON and DON ReClaim! are leading the way in the fight for a more environmentally sustainable future, and an equitable, just, and accessible one too.
A view of a previously abandoned railroad station in New Castle’s historic business district being reclaimed by DON to become a whiskey distillery.
A community garden, run and maintained by DON on Elm Street boasts a diverse array of seasonal fruits and vegetables available to the public to cultivate and harvest; out of view, there is a small food pantry available for free use to the public as well.
“We are unique in that we come from the perspective of community revitalization and development,” Ashley responds to our question about how they do it all. “We have turned a dark storefront into a new business, and we are helping people add value to their homes with materials that are a fraction of a cost of new materials.”
Kenny Rice, Elm Street Manager, gives us a spirited run down of Elm Street community garden’s operations and welcomes us to explore the grounds; he gestures to a flower sculpture, made out of recycled materials, that collects and redirects rain water into a receptacle that provides water the garden.
When asked how to help the work being done and encourage other organizations to integrate a similar level of social and environmental sustainability into their business model, Ashley responded thoughtfully, “We ourselves need to find a pathway to make this business model sustainable for the long haul. We expect it to be a few years for DON ReClaim! to be profitable but in the meantime, we have made a commitment to put forth this effort because it makes sense given our focus on community revitalization… And [E]ducation on construction and recycling is another support we need from the local state and federal policy actors.”
We concluded our tour with a feeling of hope and optimism – and with pride that our region is home to DON ReClaim!, another organization that works so hard to foster holistic environmental health and a deep sense of community. WHE hopes that other individuals, policy actors, and advocacy organizations will not only applaud but offer helping hands to collaborate with DON ReClaim! in the future. When asked about what it all comes down to at the end of the day, “We [the employees at Disability Options Network] are doing all of this as a commitment to make the community thrive and be inclusive because it is about empowering people as both employees and community members, and as a part of the bigger DON mission “To empower people with disabilities to live as independently as they choose.”
A very special thank-you to all the thoughtful DON ReClaim! staff who made our tour of DON projects possible, including Melissa Allen-Director of Public Relations & Marketing; Anita McKeever-Administrator of Community Resources; Lori Daytner-VP of Program Development; Shelley Vendemia-Events Coordinator; Chris Lloyd-President; Court Hower-CEO; Kenny Rice-Elm Street Manager; Patrick McGuire-Construction Manager; Josh Rankin-Deconstruction Associate; Daniel Nocera-Reclamation Associate; Amy Jones-Property Liaison; Ashley Stevenson-Director of Community Reclamation. It was an honor and a privilege meeting and speaking with everyone on the DON ReClaim! team.