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Shakeup at the Scrap Box

Karen Ensminger's retirement triggered a national takeover.

by Sabine Bickford

From the November, 2017 issue

When we spoke to Scrap Box founder Karen Ensminger in 2015, she said that as usual, the local creative reuse center was "hanging by its fingernails" financially. Since then, Ensminger has retired--and the nonprofit has gone through a rebranding, a complete leadership change, and the loss of its long-term employees.

The thirty-five-year-old organization dedicated to children's education and creative reuse of unconventional scrap materials, is now SCRAP Box, operating under the national nonprofit SCRAP USA.

In a recent interview, Ensminger explains that as her retirement approached, the pressure to find a sustainable solution increased. "Karen's never taken a paycheck in her life," a former employee says, and finding the money to pay a new director only added to the long-term financial trouble.

The solution reached by the Scrap Box executive board was to turn over operations to the Portland-based national reuse network SCRAP USA. Its national director, Kelley Carmichael Casey, tells us that SCRAP operates its six locations around the country from a centralized hub in Portland that handles administrative, legal, and financial decisions. "Typically people who go into creative reuse don't do it because they love to crunch numbers or they love to do the administrative work. They're eager to do the creative part of it," says Casey. "We can provide those services at a very high level, and with a high level of understanding of the financial and legal management of a creative reuse center."

SCRAP USA's usual method is to help people start their own creative reuse centers in their own areas, so taking over a long-established institution was new territory. Soon, friction developed between the longtime employees, the Scrap Box board, and SCRAP USA.

We met with Ensminger and a group of former employees and volunteers; the latter asked not to be named, concerned they they might be blackballed from using the store if they're identified as publicly criticizing SCRAP USA. In their account, the executive board brought up merging with the national group

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soon after Ensminger announced her retirement last year. "It seemed like the [executive] board were in communication with them [SCRAP] a lot more than they let on to the rest of us. They acted like they didn't really know if they wanted us, or they were waiting to find out things, and that really wasn't true," says one employee. "When we would ask if they'd made an offer, they'd say, 'no,' but what they were waiting for was Karen to give her blessing, and then as soon as that happened, boom."

"And I never gave them my blessing," Ensminger interjects. "They said you did," someone says. "Well, I abstained!" says Ensminger indignantly.

Employees say the executive board asked them for their thoughts on SCRAP and its other locations, and they gave opinions that "weren't that positive." Two SCRAP locations, one in Traverse City and another in Kennewick, Washington, have closed in the last two months.

Then, "it was a Tuesday," says a former employee, "and they said, 'this weekend SCRAP voted and they want us and we've signed the contract.' And I had asked them on Friday if there was any kind of offer. They said 'no' on Friday, and on Tuesday they said it was a done deal."

Two Scrap Box employees, the bookkeeper and webmaster, were let go immediately, since they were unneeded due to SCRAP's "central hub" format. They'd known that was a possibility from the start.

The other employees, some of whom had been there for more than twenty years, said they were willing to give SCRAP a chance. "They said, 'Everyone keeps their job, and everyone can apply for the local director job.' They said, 'You have a lot of great things going here and we just want to add our bit to it and create something really magical,' so we had a little bit of hope that that would happen," says one.

Instead, employees say they started feeling the pressure right away, first in the form of a warehouse sale they saw as rushed, and then as SCRAP leadership pressed them for information on how things were being run. They say they struggled to keep up with SCRAP leadership's demands and organizational methods, and one of the employees called a board member and expressed concern about "the claws coming out."

"Within one half hour [of that call], we had an email stating that we were to meet in the annex room at 9 a.m.," one says. The three employees who had been at the Scrap Box the longest were told they had fifteen minutes to clear out their desks. Meanwhile, Ensminger says she was told to "stay away" during the national director's visit.

The former employees are concerned that SCRAP USA is taking the Scrap Box in a direction of serving adults and away from children, and don't like some of the changes in the materials available there. "We didn't start to become a Kiwanis club number two," says Ensminger. Others raised questions about a new policy where potentially swallowable items within reach of toddlers do not get washed.

National director Casey denies that the new SCRAP Box is moving away from children and families at all. "We want kids and adults to be able to access materials they might find at home or work or school," she says. Casey says it's true they don't wash their materials, but says that's standard practice at their other locations. She also says they plan on creating a new education coordinator position, to focus on children's education, on top of providing crafting workshops for adults, and opportunities for local students.

Asked about closed locations, she acknowledges that not everyone is a "fit" for SCRAP, but she says recent numbers indicate the Ann Arbor location is now breaking even. She says she sympathizes with those who were let go, but that she felt the need to cut payroll while also getting a team together that could be fully onboard with SCRAP's methods: "We got to a point where there was too much resistance."

Still, she says she would probably feel the same way if she had been in the employees' shoes. "Some of the decisions I had to make were absolutely heart-wrenching ... It's the toughest job I've ever done. My mandate from my board of directors is to make any changes necessary for the SCRAP Box to be sustainable and survive for another thirty-five years, and I know how to do that."

When we bring up Ensminger's concerns to her, Casey sighs. "I'm sorry that she feels that way because that's really her heart and soul ... I hope she'd be happy to know that we're actually expanding the education program pretty significantly ... What she did was not short of a miracle."

On top of a larger social media presence, the new SCRAP Box is holding a grand reopening on October 28, with crafts, a costume contest, and a raffle. It also has a brand-new director, Stormy Trotter-Lloyd, who says "we are gracious and thankful for the community members that have embraced the changes and that are still strong supporters of the SCRAP Box."    (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2017.]

 

 
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