Recycling Waste And Redeeming Lives

NEWS JUNKIE POST Featured Author:
Justine Drennan of New America Media

UNION CITY, Calif. — At the office of Tri-CED Community Recycling on a recent day, Denzel McDaniels, a former employee, walked in to talk with Richard Valle, the company’s founder and chief executive officer.

McDaniels, 18, a heavy-set African American, said he wants to return to his job at Tri-CED. Valle asked McDaniels what he had been doing since he quit the company earlier this year.

“You want me to read this?” Denzel asked. He held a sheet of notebook paper.

“You wrote it,” Valle said, crossing his arms over a neon yellow vest with reflective strips that match those of his employees.

“I just got out of jail,” McDaniels read.

He stopped working at Tri-CED when he got kicked out of his house. He began selling cocaine, got arrested and ended up at the San Bruno Jail.

“This is your second shot,” Valle said.

Valle told McDaniels that he could offer him a job at the same $9-per-hour rate as before, thanks to the James Irvine Foundation, which recently gave Valle and Tri-CED a $125,000 leadership award.

With the Irvine funding and a federal grant, Valle plans to employ 24 more summer youth employees, as well as hire a case manager. The case manager will be able to take on some tasks from Valle, who involves himself in everything, from administration to basketball games with his employees.

Valle is not your typical employer and Tri-CED, a non-profit recycling company, is not your typical business. Where most companies might turn away young men with criminal records like McDaniels, Valle embraces them.

Tri-CED currently employs 85 workers, including dozens of youth between the ages of 14 and 22 who have had trouble finding jobs, some because of their criminal records. Along with part-time employment, Tri-CED offers them counseling, health information and assistance in pursuing education.

Once a small roadside buyback, Tri-CED has grown to become California’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to hiring hard-to-employ individuals. With its low-emission trucks, Tri-CED offers residents of Union City and Hayward a curbside pick-up service for glass, plastics, scrap metals, electronics, paper products, motor oil and batteries.

Tri-CED also picks up organic waste in Union City, continues to buy back bottles and cans, and accepts electronics. Since it began in 1980, Tri-CED has employed over 1,500 youth.

Valle asks all applicants to write out their histories by hand and read them back to him. That way, he finds out about both their backgrounds and the level of their reading and writing skills. Valle learned these methods years earlier when he began working with youth in Union City.

It was 1974, and a former gang member shot Chief of Police William Cann through the window of a church. Soon after that, the city manager asked Valle to help deal with crime in the city.

“I was the only one they knew who had gone to college,” said Valle, who graduated from UC Berkeley after returning from the Vietnam War.

Valle began working with youth at the Santa Rita Jail, where he found that the two factors that contributed most to youth crime were idle time and no income. So, in 1980, he founded Tri-CED.

Many Tri-CED employees attend or have attended Logan, Union City’s only high school. Because of its size, Logan can afford good programs, but many students get lost in the system. While McDaniels has a high school diploma, many Tri-CED employees do not. Tri-CED tries to offer these young people the support that they were not getting from school.

Aside from imparting work skills, Tri-CED gives them health education. Valle serves nutritious food at company barbeques. Last year, Tri-CED paid for employee gym memberships. But because of the economic downturn, the price of recyclables has dropped 50 percent in the last 18 months, and the company has cut back on some of the perks.

Outside the office, customers in cars and trucks waited in line to unload their recyclables. On Saturdays, Tri-CED’s busiest day, around 400 customers come to the buyback.

Valle said hello to a customer, whom Valle estimated will make between $15 and $20 from the cans and bottles in the back of his truck. In a booth beside the driveway, Weijie Mu, 22, a Tri-CED employee and an immigrant from China, paid customers for their recyclables. This month, Weijie will take his citizenship test.

Another young employee in a yellow vest helped a family unload a motherboard from their car. Currently, Tri-CED ships electronics to a site in Los Angeles that takes them apart. “In this business,” Valle said as he entered the warehouse, “when things are mixed, they’re garbage, but separate, they have value.” He hopes that in the future, Tri-CED can dismantle electronics on site.

Inside the warehouse, youth and adult employees sorted recyclables on conveyors that deposit them into balers. Tri-CED ships the meter-high bales to Shanghai and Hong Kong for processing.
Some Tri-CED youth employees have become full-time workers at the company. Of those who have left, Valle knows that one became a bank manager and another runs a drugstore. Tri-CED doesn’t have the resources to track where most go.

“Hopefully, not jail,” Valle said.

However, employees leave with essential skills of the work world, such as how to act with customers, follow instructions and be responsible.

“It’s great,” said Marcus Silva, 20, who has worked at Tri-CED for a year and attends Ohlone Community College in Fremont. “I’ve never had a bad experience.”

After almost 30 years with Tri-CED, Valle’s plans for Union City and recycling continue. A member of the City Council, he plans to run for mayor in 2012.

But for now, he is seeking financial support for his proposal to build a $4 million education center next to Tri-CED’s warehouse. The center, to be run in partnership with Chabot College, would offer resources such as a chemistry lab, parenting workshops, an environmental studies program, and English language classes for the many Tri-CED employees who don’t speak the language well.

Still, Valle’s main focus will continue to be “targeting specific kids – kids that are deep, really in deep trouble right now,” he said. “Kids like Denzel are at a really key time.”

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