When Ron Harness was released from his three-and-a-half month jail term in October 2010, he didn’t know what to do with himself.
“I was facing the street originally,” Harness said.
Once released, Harness said his self-esteem took a major hit, as he reevaluated whom he was and what he was capable of.
“It was a lot of fears of understanding who I really was, that took some time,” he said. “And still I’m working through that.”
Fortunately for Harness, he found Belmont Church’s Nashville ministry called Isaiah 58. The ministry put Harness in a halfway house and a 12-step program, and hired him to work at Spring Back Recycling in July 2011.
Spring Back is a mattress recycling business designed by Belmont University’s Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE. It employs formerly incarcerated men to give them paid work and an opportunity to rebuild their sense of character, while reducing environmental waste and consumption.
The initiative is an experience-building venture for SIFE students as well. SIFE will act as Belmont Church’s unpaid business consultant for Spring Back, until Belmont Church is ready to take the business into its own hands. Then Spring Back will be a for-profit branch of Isaiah 58.
Spring Back project leader and SIFE student Eric Taft has helped manage the organization with longevity in mind.
“A lot of nonprofits are saying let’s move towards sustainability,” Taft said. “Let’s move towards working with the people who benefit from our organization and try to empower them.”
And many people do benefit from Spring Back. So far, it’s employed two men full-time, and around four others for part-time. And Belmont SIFE students like Brennon Mobley get experience developing a business with a cause.
“The social good aspect is kind of refreshing, because not only are you learning but you’re actually having a social impact,” Mobley said.
Mobley, a sophomore, calls Spring Back “a pretty great combination” that he wants to stick with through college and beyond as it grows.
“It’s more than just recycling,” Mobley said. “It’s building character and instilling values in the employees.”
At the same time, Spring Back certainly also recycles a lot of mattresses.
“Fifteen hundred mattresses will cover the entire surface of an NFL football field,” Taft said. “1,600 mattresses will go over a mile and a half. Just the metal alone for mattresses: that’s 15 tons kept out of a landfill. So 30,000 pounds of metal have not been put in a landfill because of us.”
So, 1,600 mattresses have been conserved in just 6 months of operation. But where do all these mattresses come from?
“Mattress Unlimited was a SIFE supporter,” Taft said, so it was the first to jump on board.
In the past, when Mattress Unlimited delivered a new mattress, they just threw out the old one. Now, they pay Spring Back to take those old mattresses, “first of all, because it’s the right thing to do, second of all, they think their customers will appreciate that,” Taft said.
Then, SIFE researched how other mattress recyclers dismantle the materials, and connected with commodity buyers who would purchase the recyclable components.
As the project developed, it became more sustainable. Now, Taft says Spring Back is on the verge of a quarter-million-dollar contract. He sees it as a business venture that could grow beyond the Nashville warehouse into a nationwide effort.
“My vision is that eventually it will become public policy that you have to recycle your mattress,” Taft said. “I think that Spring Back is doing its best to save the earth and employ guys that need it.”
While being an entrepreneur at 19 has opened up future business opportunities for Taft, the employees opened his eyes as well.
“They’re showing me that there are areas of my life where I need to be more grateful,” Taft said.
But Harness says the students may have done even more than they know, just by setting an example for him.
“I don’t even think they realize a lot of what they’re doing,” Harness laughed, “and that is really caring for others, putting theirselves second. It really allowed me to see how much I wasn’t paying attention to others, like it was all about me.”
While his confidence has “got a long ways to go,” Harness said his spiritual rehabilitation thus far is thanks to God, working through SIFE and Isaiah 58.
“What I was doing got me where I was at, and what he’s doing for me is saving my life,” said Harness.