Friends of the Carpenter builds new leadership

The Rev. Duane Sich is stepping down and Tom Iberle is stepping up at Christian workshop for homeless

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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So many great ideas have emerged from American garages, Tom Iberle quipped: from Microsoft and Apple Computer to the Ramones.

To learn more

Visit Friends of the Carpenter's website

Here's something great that grew out of the Vancouver carport of the Rev. Duane Sich. Sich, a Nebraska farm boy who graduated from Iowa's Dubuque Theological Seminary and relocated to Vancouver in 1973, said he rarely got around to his garage hobby — woodworking — while employed as the associate pastor at Vancouver's First Presbyterian Church.

Sich was responsible for doling out charity to the homeless and downtrodden who came asking. "Every church pastor, every person of faith knows that's what you're supposed to do," he said.

But he frankly lost faith in the mission. "As I served in that role for 28 years, I realized I wasn't changing anything, just perpetuating their situation," he said. "I would extend welcome and hospitality, but what I was thinking was, whatever I give you today will change your day, but not your life."

The same was true for members of his church, he realized. They came on Sundays and coughed up some charity — and nothing changed for them either. They certainly didn't get to know the people they were supposedly trying to help. They tended to see the differences in their stations rather than "the unique person right in front of them," Sich said. The whole situation was "more of a deal than a relationship."

His brainstorm: Why not invite the homeless — who always insisted they wanted work, not charity — into his garage, where they could build some skills and make something beautiful? And ditto for his compassionate but somewhat removed congregation?

Sich spent a month living in a homeless shelter in Georgia, just to make sure he knew what he was talking about. Then he left his job and followed his dream. Friends of the Carpenter, a unique homeless ministry, was born in 1998 — in Sich's Lincoln-neighborhood garage.

"It was really scary to leave my church and follow a dream like this," said Sich. "Nobody knew what it would do or even if it would survive." He thanked his wife of many years, Julie, for having the courage to follow the dream with him. "I really do owe it all to her," he said.

The charity moved here and there before settling into its current location beside the railroad tracks, near the intersection of West 20th StreetandMill Plain. Friends of the Carpenter hosts dozens of people per day in a working woodshop that's stuffed not just with lumber and power tools, but also opportunity and friendship.

It's never been easy to make it all work, though. Even despite a gigantic $500,000 donation from Jack and Jane Artz in 2004 that allowed Friends of the Carpenter to buy outright the 18,000-square-foot warehouse it calls home, the place has spent almost its whole history losing money. That changed with the 2010 launch of 2nd Chance Thrift, a secondhand store on St. Johns Boulevard that's dedicated entirely to supporting Friends of the Carpenter. Store sales have pushed the charity reliably into the black.Sich said he no longer feels like he's "heading off a firestorm."

And that's why, 17 years after he started it, Sich, now 66, is handing off leadership of the charity to Tom Iberle, who becomes the official executive director Feb. 1.

Life's work

Iberle, 55, grew up in Chicago and Michigan, and trained as a biology and genetics researcher. He assumed that would be his life's work, but also realized something important was missing. The lifelong Catholic was 25 years old when he stepped away from professional science and left the breadwinning to his wife, Kathy, who worked for Hewlett-Packard. Iberle did the homemaking and child rearing until the kids grew up.

He got busy volunteering for charities such as Share, St. Vincent de Paul, and Friends of the Carpenter. He and his wife moved away to Boise, Idaho, briefly, and then returned to Vancouver to stay. Iberle returned to Friends of the Carpenter and got hired as volunteer coordinator. "It was such a joy to be connected up again," he said.

That joy increased as the Friends of the Carpenter board of directors decided not just to hire Iberle, but to smooth the transition by having him work alongside Sich for a while. Iberle became Sich's co-director on Oct. 1.

Sich cheerfully cops to his reputation as a big-picture dreamer — but also points out that his earliest vision of a different sort of homeless ministry reached fruition only because he learned to be a business administrator too. Iberle said he brings his own wealth of managerial experience to the job, and called himself a "project manager" by nature.

Plenty of projects await him. Pipes in the kitchen burst during the recent deep freeze. Hundreds of donated coats collected by local Boy Scouts are moving through the place. Any working woodshop comes with real safety and liability concerns that need careful attention. And while the mission of person-to-person connection is performed almost entirely by volunteers, Friends of the Carpenter does have a handful of paid staffers.

Iberle wants to broaden the charity's funding sources a lot further than local churches and donors, he said. There are deep-pocketed foundations and grantors to be tapped, he said, and a firmer foundation to be built.

"They don't need a dreamer so much anymore," he said. "This place has gotten so big and complex, they need a manager to keep it on track."

Sense of purpose

Friends of the Carpenter was noisy with cheerful chatter and power tools on a recent Wednesday afternoon. A handful of focused woodworkers were over in the authorized-only area, pursuing personal projects or cutting out the little crosses, fish symbols and other gewgaws that Friends of the Carpenter sells; on the other side of the shop, visitors and volunteers were busy socializing while sanding, painting and staining the finished products.

"Most day shelters are just a place to crash and hang out," Sich said. "Here there is a sense of purpose."

The place doesn't do enough business to call itself a commercial or manufacturing operation, Sich said, and it doesn't really teach woodworking as a vocation; it's more about building relationships and a work ethic. Once he's truly retired, though, Sich wants to develop a more intensive way for amateur woodworkers to build serious skills and become paid professionals. "I haven't stopped dreaming," he grinned.

Plus, he hopes to get back to his old, neglected hobby — right here at the woodshop he launched from his own garage.

Many of Sich's friends and fans eagerly shared their feelings about him. "If it wasn't for Duane I might be dead now," said Terry Tobin, a formerly homeless volunteer.

"Duane only knew me for four hours" before offering a generous cash loan so Barbarita Gately could escape a dangerous situation, she said. "I could have just walked off with that money. But he trusted me," she said. Now Gately volunteers at the reception desk in mornings and helps with sanding and staining in the afternoon. Either way, she said, she is "meeting people and making them happy," she said.

"This is an ecumenical ministry," Sich said. It's obviously a Christian ministry, but it's no church. It's more like the modest stable where Jesus was born, he said. Still, numerous churches are involved in underwriting its finances and sending hundreds of volunteers to help with its efforts. "One of our goals is to have church members learn to communicate" with the homeless people that they may find just a little scary, Sich said.

Many more local players are equally involved with Friends of the Carpenter, from offenders who perform court-ordered community service to youth groups looking for positive summer outings. Sich said he loves watching the way people's hearts are transformed by the place. As with most volunteer organizations, he pointed out, the volunteers "get more out of it than the people they serve."

"Nobody is better than anybody else here," said Iberle, "but we hope that everybody is better when they leave than when they came."