Tucked between storefronts near King and Wentworth you’ll find two floors stacked with plywood, off-cuts, hand tools, and woodwork machinery. You’ll also find Alicia Wilson, executive director and founder of Restoration Project, leading staff and volunteers in a mission to empower others through creativity.
And if you’d have peered inside mid-August, you’d have admired 30 handmade cedar planters in neat piles, sleek and ready to be delivered to McMaster’s new Children’s Centre. This is only one example of the project’s artistic undertakings — and of the talent held by its artisans, who each live with a developmental disability.
Having grown significantly since conception three summers ago, Restoration Project is celebrating another milestone in their move to a new workshop at Parkdale and Barton this month. Here are pieces of their story so far, so you can join in the hoopla.
“On a basic level, we teach woodworking to adults with developmental disabilities,” explains Alicia, seated at her sawdusted desk. “We use reclaimed materials to show the process of restoration in visible form, as an example of what takes part in people’s lives as well.”
Having worked with people with disabilities for fifteen years, Alicia has noticed an unfortunate disconnect between this demographic and meaningful programming.
“In group homes I noticed so many barriers,” she says. “A lot of individuals I supported didn’t fit in the regular employment model, so I was trying to figure out how we could actually create a new model for them that’s sustainable.”
These questions, combined with a craving for creativity, prompted Alicia to explore the possibility of starting her own nonprofit three years ago. She initially pictured a youth mentorship program, until research revealed the advantages of an alternate model.
“The more I sat with the idea,” says Alicia, “the more a focus on generating income made sense: an artisan program with the youth mentorship program tacked on.” Her connections with multiple group homes meant she could personally invite participants. Zoning in on the craft of woodworking came soon after, as she considered what products would be profitable and what materials would be inexpensive.
Things began rolling when Alicia “just started a lot of conversations,” one of which was with Sue Carr, executive director of nonprofit 541 Eatery & Exchange on Barton.
“Sue was at the top of the list,” she reveals, grinning. Sue directed Alicia to a grant for young entrepreneurs, helping give shape to her plans. “It was a good push to write everything down on paper and see what happens.”
Around the same time, she found the Hamilton Tool Library, who immediately took to the project’s vision and offered use of their space and tools. Starting in August 2016, Alicia began renting the studio and hosting a class.
“Really,” she laughs, “I learned woodworking from YouTube.”
“I’d watch videos for weeks prior [to a class], and then be like ‘Alright, we’re good to go!’ Once you learn the techniques, you start to understand how things can go together.”
As for acquiring materials — she quickly discovered the wonders of Kijiji, keeping an eye out for fences being torn down, or cabinet-making companies getting rid of plywood or maple offcuts. This approach reduces both cost and waste.
“For me it’s about figuring out the regular waste of a company and how we can make use of it.”
After the Hamilton Tool Library sadly folded, Restoration took on the space in late 2017.
“I knew from the beginning it was not the ideal spot,” she says. Having most of the equipment in the basement limits accessibility to some participants. There’ve also been multiple break-ins.
This past June, they signed a lease to a new space on Parkdale Avenue. And this month, they’re opening it up for the public.
“I prayed for a very clear moment,” Alicia recalls, “so when we got to the place we’d know it was the right one.” She found a property online with the right parameters and price point so, out of curiosity, zoomed into street-view.
“I noticed a nearby building looked like the Indwell-style design,” she explains, referring to a local organization that provides affordable housing. “When we pulled up we noticed it was actually an Indwell building!” This brought a sense of affirmation, since Indwell’s clientele are likely to benefit from Restoration Project’s programs — and they’re right in the neighbourhood.
“That felt like a clear sign.”
The project makes its move this month, throwing a re-opening bash for the public on September 28th from 10 am to 4 pm. There’ll be handmade items for sale, opportunities to meet the artisans, and charcuterie board- and sign-making workshops. Check out the Facebook page for event details.
“We want to challenge people’s thinking,” says Alicia on behalf of the initiative. “That they’d realize, ‘Oh, not only was this cutting board made out of something that was going to be thrown away, but it was made by someone who I wouldn’t have thought had the skills to do it, or that I may have easily overlooked because of their disability.’”
“We’re all created with equal value,” she affirms. “That’s our starting point — we all have dignity and are created in the image of the Creator. So take a second look at things: both the products we make, and the people who make them. There are huge amounts of ability, skill, and passion; some people just need a bit of a different framework to empower them.”
Group homes and families have caught on to the project’s artful, thoughtful programming. “We get emails from people saying they’ve heard about us. It’s a pretty close-knit community in terms of supports because there’s a limit of them, so there’s a fair amount of interest in places like this.”
Handmade products are for sale on their website and, of course, will be available at the showroom in their new digs. Keep an eye out for a line of coasters sold at 541 Eatery & Exchange, Paisley Coffee-house & Eatery, Democracy, Vintage Coffee Roasters, and Studio 205.
“I don’t think we could have launched, started, and come to where we are in the same time frame in any other city,” Alicia says, her sincerity evident. “There has been so much community support both for me leading and for what we’re doing.
Restoration Project is always looking for volunteers; a one-to-one ratio is ideal because of the nature of their programming. And you don’t need any woodworking expertise to be considered! Reach out through their website or Instagram page to learn more. You can also support the initiative by donating funds, materials, tools, and buying their products.
“Supporting the artisans that way is huge,” Alicia concludes. “We’re thankful for such a great community base to retail to.”