tiny houses BIG PLANS

LightWorks built on unusual foundation

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Michael Chilson, left, works with Michael South to install a sheet of roofing material to a tiny house.

Imagine you've got a business idea that could generate a few bucks.

While money's nice, imagine that it's not your main motivator. What you really want is to do some good, to leave your neighborhood, your community, your region just a little bit better than the way you found it. Imagine you've got a pretty big imagination.

So instead of hiring experienced construction workers to build tiny houses and sell them for profit, you enlist people who are pulling themselves out of criminal pasts, from the poisonous clutches of substance abuse, from poverty and its dreadful companion, hopelessness. This unusual workforce will be housed, counseled and trained not just to pound nails and paint plywood, but to learn soft skills and life skills, to get healthier mentally, physically and spiritually. After a year or two, they are clean, skilled, and ready to join the more traditional workforce.

And they're happy.

Still, that's not enough. Your imagination is only getting warmed up.

So you imagine creating a campus where you not only build tiny houses - 300 or 400 square feet is all - and the trailers to transport them, but you also engage this workforce to raise and sell hydroponically grown, organic vegetables. While you're at it, your workforce can build more hydroponic greenhouses and sell those, too. Healthy food now being on the front burner, you imagine a commercial kitchen on this campus that, among other things, can be used to bake breads and pastries and sell them wholesale.

Tiny houses/revenue: check.

Tiny house trailers/revenue: check.

Hydroponic veggies/revenue: check.

Hydroponic greenhouses/revenue: check.

Now the money is coming in. Now social enterprise is happening. Now the imagination is soaring. What's ahead?

If you're Frank Genetti and LightWorks, here's what's ahead: Pay day for the people.

A former golden boy running back at Cal-Berkeley who then went into business and lived the high life in California, Genetti eventually came back to earth.

With a thud.

Personal and family issues nearly consumed him. Cancer coursing through his body almost killed him. But through it all, he's emerged a deeply spiritual man whose focus is squarely on others.

"While dealing with my cancer I had a chance to reflect on my life and purpose, which allowed me to get my priorities in order," he said. "Sometimes it takes a major issue in life to get it right."

Genetti, former California computer whiz Ken Gilbert and an impressive board of directors appear to be getting it right on the local social enterprise frontier.

LightWorks is the name of the company Genetti dreamed up in that big imagination of his, and it's the launching pad he intends to use in building lots of tiny houses and hydroponic greenhouses while baking and growing the company's way into consumers' stomachs - and their hearts.

LightWorks is a spinoff of HARC - Helping the At-Risk Community - which itself is the second generation of another local faith-based organization founded several years back by Ron Nilson and Pastor Tim Remington. That one was called NITRO - North Idaho Training and Rehab Organization - and the key to its success was combining the strengths of Kootenai County's technical education campus, the Idaho Department of Labor and a group of determined, civic-minded leaders including Nilson, Remington and Genetti. LightWorks is a continuation of the mission of both of those groups, but by training a workforce to produce nationally marketable products while becoming marketable employees themselves, it's unusual. The fact that it does all this while reforming and inspiring former felons, drug addicts, alcoholics, the homeless and others with disabilities might make LightWorks unique.

Genetti, LightWorks' CEO, painted the big picture this way:

"We take a population that's been a strain on the community and help them get to the point where they're giving back. These aren't dumb guys. They just made some poor choices along the way."

Michael South is one of those guys. South, 40, is part of the crew that's now finishing work on LightWorks' first marketable tiny house, a 398-square-foot prototype with bathroom, shower, kitchenette, sleeping loft and deck.

"I've been in trouble all my life," said South, who grew up in the Coeur d'Alene area. "This program has given me the opportunity to learn the dynamics of success."

South said he's benefited from the rigorous program provided by HARC, which includes faith-based character building, developing soft skills and life skills, anger management, financial literacy, nutrition and more. The technical education he's received - he's due to graduate from HARC in less than two weeks - has made him a convert of another kind, too.

"I said, 'This really isn't for me,'" South admitted with a laugh Wednesday when he talked about the technical training that eventually led him to the roof of the tiny house. "But as life would have it, God decided this is the only thing for me."

And not just for South.

"We're shaping the future for other guys just like me," he said.

Gilbert, who oversees Shepherd's Table in the community while also serving as LightWorks' director of manufacturing, describes the mission as getting people like South "beyond stuck."

"They can't get a job, they can't get a place to live, so they go back to drugs and they go back to prison," Gilbert said. "We want to break that cycle."

While clearly faith-based, Genetti said LightWorks won't shut out anybody because of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation.

"This is open to anyone who wants to turn their life around," he said.

The community will gain by some of its biggest detractors becoming significant contributors. That fact led the city of Coeur d'Alene to bestow a $121,000 community development block grant on Shepherd's Table and HARC, funds that will help LightWorks grow financial wings.

LightWorks also is being considered for an even larger three-year grant, a gift that would be eagerly and gratefully put to good use. But Genetti insists that LightWorks, following the general model of social enterprise or social entrepreneurship, intends to become fully self-sufficient.

"There's going to be naysayers because of where some of these guys have been," he said. "That's one of the reasons we want to be self-supporting. Also, to go out and have fundraisers and donations, it's a nightmare. And why should we take away from all the fantastic nonprofits that are already here? There's absolutely no reason we can't pay our own way."

According to a LightWorks proforma, the business will be paying its own way soon. Projections call for building eight tiny houses a month by early 2016, with the homes selling somewhere in the $35,000 range - just over half what some other manufacturers of tiny houses charge, Genetti said.

Details still need to be worked out, but LightWorks and local civic leaders are putting their heads together to see how LightWorks-built tiny houses might be used to help solve the community's homeless problem. Genetti said his organization is willing to donate approximately every fourth house it builds to that cause.

LightWorks' business plan and powerful social components have attracted the support of an organization called Re:source Global, a large, gospel-fueled nonprofit that provides strategic guidance and access to a global network of professional advisers to faith-based entities like LightWorks.

Andrea Surace, a Re:source consultant working with Genetti and Gilbert, said the organization will handle LightWorks' standard business functions like accounts receivable and payables.

"They're super-impressed with this project and with the leadership of Frank and Ken," she added, noting that by Re:source handling many of the daily business details, Genetti and Gilbert will be free to train and mentor their workforce while building tiny houses - and their bigger dream.

And that's where pay day for the people comes in.

After cobbling together its first portable tiny house wherever it can, LightWorks is close to announcing a base - an actual campus - where all its training, manufacturing, baking and growing can take place. An integral part of the campus mission will be giving back, Genetti said.

In that big imagination of his, as well as in designated buildings that already exist on the campus, discarded computers will be repaired and given to local people who can't afford one. They'll be fixed by LightWorks students, of course.

Free auto repairs - again, supervised LightWorks students will be learning on the job - will be offered.

An emergency food bank, stocked at least in part by the campus commercial kitchen and hydroponic gardens, will make community deliveries as needed. And space will be set aside for a wood shop where Santa's elves - LightWorks students - will make Christmas toys for the community's needy children, free of charge.

Steve Griffitts, a vice president at Mountain West Bank and board member of HARC, lauded the potential of LightWorks and praised its CEO.

"I don't know how tiny houses will work from a social or economic level," Griffitts conceded. "But if we can build them at a price point that will allow people to utilize them effectively, then tiny houses can be a great answer to many of the housing issues that exist.

"Frank's love for people and his patience in the midst of turmoil is amazing. He has so many gifts that are needed to lead an organization like LightWorks. He is personally invested. He is doing this for the right reasons."

Standing a few feet away from the first tiny house as it neared completion Wednesday and with his arm draped over Genetti's shoulders, Gilbert smiled. And he refused to lose perspective.

"This is great, but it's not about building the houses or the other enterprises to come," he said. "It's about the people. That's what drives us both."

CONTACT INFORMATION: harc-hope.com or call 208-471-8030

Melissa Pierce installs a window in a LightWorks tiny house.

 

Frank Genetti is the chief executive officer for LightWorks, a social entrepreneurship that aims to help the at-risk population.

 

Ken Gilbert, director of manufacturing for LightWorks, describes the organization’s business model and goals.

 

Andrea Surace, an independent contractor for Resource Global, describes her role with LightWorks.

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