When retired football coach Mark McCullough came up with an idea to help disadvantaged individuals get jobs in 2008, he had no idea his vision would turn into the thriving upcycling retail operation it is today. As long-time assistant football coach at Parkersburg High School, McCullough worked with several boys who faced different challenges. He made them ball boys who participated in the teams’ success, complete with uniforms and championship rings. Concerned about their welfare as he approached retirement, McCullough wanted to extend the same sense of belonging for them and similar individuals in the community.
McCullough drew up a plan and presented to REM Community Options in Boaz. REM, a natural alliance for his mission, is a home and community-based provider for a variety of health and human services. McCullough’s name for the idea, the Open Hands Seed Project, explained his vision: “The community opens its hands, the seeds are the people and we are all projects,” he chuckles. REM took interest in the project even though they didn’t know exactly what it would entail. McCullough was made Vocational Coordinator, and his plan sprang into action when he and his hires started selling plants in Big Sandy’s parking lot.
In reference to giving work to employees who may not have opportunities in the traditional workforce because they’re different or misunderstood Coach says, “We like to recycle material and people.”
After selling plants a few years for seed money, the employees decided they wanted to create things. Although McCullough, affectionately dubbed “Coach,” claims he can’t build anything, he knew he could bring in the right people. Woodcraft heard about Open Hands and asked them to do an infomercial and accompany them to a national convention in exchange for supplies and safety programs. Donations also poured in from the community as word spread. With training underway, the employees needed a place to display and sell their one-of-a-kind artistic works they created from everyday objects. REM provided a small conference room for a gallery. In August, they outgrew the space and moved to a larger facility next door.
One of the gallery’s more popular items, the corner door piece, originated with a hire who couldn’t read or write. McCullough supplied the door and challenged him to think about how he might make a window. When he returned, the employee had knocked out all the panels to make a display of the treasures his grandmother had given him. McCullough collaborated on the design process and what took a month to build the prototype can now be made in a few days. In reference to giving work to employees who may not have opportunities in the traditional workforce because they’re different or misunderstood Coach says, “We like to recycle material and people.”
The gallery also sells jewelry, paintings, headboard benches, and other re-purposed items. McCullough’s philosophy explains the broad range of creativity displayed in the workers’ creations: “We try to fail every day. There is too much emphasis on success. Failure is just a direction. I want you to be uncomfortable so you can come up to a higher level. Don’t tell me what you can’t do. Tell me what you can do.”
Burlap prints made from single pane windows are another big seller. McCullough came across the burlap while on a scouting trip to Florida for supplies. He and his wife go on weekend trips to various artisan fairs to look for interesting finds. “I’m always looking for something different because we’re different.” McCullough noted. A national organization called Dream Life, a one-year rehabilitation program for recovering addicts locally housed in Downtown Bethel Church, provides labor for the prints. “We take drug addicts, and we help them help themselves.” McCullough adds. An antique store in Mount Dora, Florida, serves as a distributor for these high-end prints.
I appreciate the opportunity to work in a place where people believe in what I’m doing and where co-workers aren’t treated like employees but like family.
McCullough readily admits he doesn’t understand the popularity of everything made, such as steampunk-inspired art, perhaps due to a generational gap. However, he always encourages originality and never tries to stifle anyone’s creativity. Artist and builder, Montana Lorraine, who has been with Open Hands since its inception confirms: “I appreciate the opportunity to work in a place where people believe in what I’m doing and where co-workers aren’t treated like employees but like family.”
Besides coming up with their own artistic creations, employees pride themselves on the restoration of sentimental items. A majority of their work, in fact, comes from custom orders. “A lot of people bring in second and third generation rocking chairs,” said McCullough. They recently finished one that belonged to a customer’s great, great grandmother. The owner was thankful to have a piece of history preserved. Open Hands will also help people restore their own pieces, so they can enjoy a greater sense of ownership. Classes are also offered for those who want to learn how to make their own projects.
If we open our hands to people that we don’t think matter in life, we’ll be surprised where they’ll go.
Besides their Boaz gallery, Open Hands’ art can be found in other local stores such as Jeremiahs and S.W.A.G.G. in Marietta and in out-of-state retail shops in Mount Dora, FL, and West Jefferson, NC. Open Hands Gallery also has a website and a Facebook page that facilitates online business. McCullough has increased advertising this year and is participating in more trade shows as the gallery’s popularity grows. A few of this year’s shows include the Old Time Collectible Antique Fair in West Jefferson, NC, the Nashville Flea Market, and a show in an artisan village in Mount Dora, FL.
When McCullough looks back at his original presentation, he couldn’t have predicted how far his vision would come, let alone imagined having distributors in several states along the East Coast. Though he receives a paycheck, he insists it isn’t work. “I like what I do. It’s all about relationships, which is why what we’re doing is so important,” said McCullough. Though no one knows how a tiny seed becomes a forest, Coach’s inner belief provides clue: “If we open our hands to people that we don’t think matter in life, we’ll be surprised where they’ll go.” Just ask the ball boys.