by Chris Horst
(Editor's Note. The following post from our friend Chris Horst about refugee ministry meets faith driven entrepreneurship, was originally posted in the Denver Post.)
Millenials flock to Denver faster than almost every other city in the country. Colorado’s recreational culture, active lifestyle and surging downtown create a magnetic atmosphere for young people. But our new neighbors include more than hipsters in search of tech startups and fresh powder.
“Colorado is better than other places,” said Ah Hki, who moved to Colorado two years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand. “I found a great job and have a lot of work. Housing is expensive here, but the wages are higher here, too. And the weather is better.”
Each year, several thousand refugees make Colorado their home. When they do, a make-or-break factor in their acclimation is whether or not they can find good work.
Over the past 34 years, 50,207 refugees have made Colorado their home. Nationwide, up to 70,000 refugees — people escaping their home countries for fear of persecution because of their religion, race or some other cause — arrive each year, and several thousand become Coloradans.
Since 1980, the largest numbers of refugees journey to Colorado from Vietnam, Russia, Burma and Somalia. When they arrive, government support provides a short window for them to find steady employment.
That’s where James Ruder steps in.
“I want to hire as many refugees as I possibly can,” said Ruder, owner and CEO of L&R Pallet in Denver. “It’s been so refreshing to have these guys here. I have the best team of employees I’ve ever had.”
In a sprawling warehouse sandwiched between Stapleton and Aurora, L&R constructs 10,000 pallets each day. Nearly everything Coloradans buy, eat and wear arrives or departs on pallets. Many of these pallets make their way through the L&R shop floor. Some are constructed there from scratch. Many more are rebuilt, repaired or remanufactured by the L&R team.
Ruder’s parents, Larry and Dorris, founded the company in their basement in 1974 — long before Pinterest made pallet wood the material du jour. Larry worked at Coca Cola and saw the expanse of pallets the company used each day. So he and Dorris took out a $500 loan to buy a truck. They began buying and selling pallets. Today, the company employs over 100 people.
Several years ago, Ruder began hiring refugees to work in his company. Ruder credits his Christian faith as the motivating reason he began investing in Denver’s refugee population.
“All of us are refugees to this country at some point,” said Ruder. “If these people need refuge and God wants to make my company a place for them, that’s exciting.”
Today, nearly half of Ruder’s workforce are refugees. These craftsmen, builders and forklift drivers hail from places like Congo, Thailand and Burma. Ah Hki serves as an assistant supervisor on the shop floor.
“My agency, Lutheran, told me about L&R,” said Hki. “I believe our company is the best. My friends at other companies talk to me about their jobs. But everyone says our company is the best.”
In partnership with Lutheran Family Services and other resettlement agencies, the Colorado Department of Human Services helps to serve the incoming refugee population. Hillary Prag coordinates refugee service agencies, like Lutheran, and training schools like Emily Griffith Technical College. And she works with businesses like L&R to advocate on behalf of Colorado’s refugee population.
Refugees often come to Colorado with impressive work experiences; many were doctors, engineers, and lawyers in their countries of origin.
Many of Ruder’s new employees do not speak English. As a result, they have had to move away from written instruction manuals to more hands-on demonstration. Pallet construction is physically demanding work, often involving powerful machinery.
“The immigration process for refugees — leaving one’s home country to Colorado — strips people of really important parts of their identity,” said Prag. “Having a good job is just as important for refugees as it is for all of us. [We all need] to have the dignity of identifying ourselves with what we do.”
But navigating the American work landscape can be challenging. Companies willing to be creative in how they hire, onboard and train their employees often find the extra work is entirely worth it.
“[L&R] is very in tuned in to showing their staff that they respect them and that they believe in them,” said Prag. “They believe refugees bring talent that is good for their company.”
Some training materials now feature illustrations alongside the text. Ruder is also launching English language courses at the request of his staff. He hopes to one day offer citizenship courses and GED classes to further support his employees.
Moo Lu and his family moved from Burma to a refugee camp in Thailand when he was 12 years old. They lived at the camp for a decade before immigrating to the United States. He lived in Washington and Iowa for a few years before moving to Colorado one year ago. He is now married and has worked at L&R since moving to Aurora.
“Of course I like working here,” said Lu. “I like it here…I hope to make this company successful and to work with peace.”
Because of the unique challenges facing many refugees, L&R also contracts with a chaplaincy service that avails professional chaplains to all L&R employees. These chaplains speak the many languages of Ruder’s staff members and ensure all his employees have access to personal care, crisis support, and to a confidential, safe person to discuss any challenges they might have. Many of the refugees working at L&R cite the chaplains as a valuable support system in helping them acclimate to life in Colorado.
Ruder believes hiring refugees has been the best decision he’s made. It’s required his company to adapt, but it’s a decision Ruder believes has benefited his company’s bottom line. And, it has improved the corporate culture. His employees have welcomed and celebrated the new members of the team.
Each day, many new neighbors stream across Colorado’s borders. They come from all over the world. Some come for the mountains. Others come for the lifestyle. But all come seeking refuge. In a nondescript warehouse in northeast Denver, many of these new neighbors have found a place of refuge in a surprising place. They’ve found it at a pallet company.
“L&R is part of a new wave,” said Prag. “This unorthodox workforce could be such a surprising ticket for success for employers in Colorado who want to push the boundaries of what’s possible for their businesses. It takes risk. It takes courage.”
thanks to Jordan Koons and Unsplash for the cover photo