I've started a new adventure.

I retired from the City of Bakersfield last month and opened Recycling Lives, a unique not-for-profit whose mission is providing job-skills training to the homeless and parolees in our community.

Recycled glass is our medium.

I was a successful administrator of the city’s Solid Waste and Recycling Division programs for 17 years and was responsible for a program that ultimately hired and placed over 50 residents of the Bakersfield Homeless Center to work every week, cleaning our freeways, sorting through green waste and helping at the animal care facility, among other things.

Transitioning into Recycling Lives, where we would put the homeless and parolees to work in an innovative new recycling industry creating a colorful recycled glass landscape mulch, just seemed natural.

But in my first month of my “retirement,” I can say I grossly miscalculated. This ain’t no government job! I’ve never been so busy in my life. 

Now, I’m generally a laid-back guy, but this month it’s been sleepless nights and high anxiety. Usually when I can’t sleep, I try praying, and that pretty much puts me to sleep every time. But these days, it’s not enough. I actually prayed long enough without falling asleep that I got an epiphany. Perhaps now I will shift from poor attempts at humor to an attempt at seriousness.

In my life, I’ve been fortunate. The good things that happened weren’t guaranteed, and some of those good things put my life on a trajectory toward relative success and happiness. Sure, hard work was a part of it, but time and chance happen to us all. So I’ve had a few sleepless nights recently and some high anxiety and I don’t like it, but it has served a purpose. For a moment at least, I understand. My epiphany: My “suffering” pales in comparison.

For the homeless, for the distressed, for those mentally ill — the suffering is every moment. The sleepless nights, the high anxiety, the deeply rooted personal suffering, the turning to drugs as an escape, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the inevitable turn toward greater despair, mental illness, drugs and ultimately greater suffering — that’s there every day and every night. Some of these people we know and love. Their suffering is real and magnified.

Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That may pertain to all of us to some degree, but for those lives lost to the mental illness that often ensues from homelessness, the desperation is no longer quiet. It’s a roar inside themselves, a roar that turns deafening. And that roar demands silencing through drugs or walls inside their souls.

We may have known someone, but after a while, these folks are unrecognizable to us — probably to themselves, too. Every one of those folks we see on the street once had lives, families, mothers who conceived them, and dreams for their futures. They are gone forever and in their place is an anguish that I hope none of us will ever experience.

Those few sleepless nights for me are a wakeup call. It was the right time for me to take this plunge, no matter what happens. I could have stayed put, but this opportunity would have passed. I am not recommending anyone else quit their job, but it’s not too late to help.

Recycling Lives desperately needs your support. A host of other agencies are trying to serve this population; with Recycling Lives, we will take those homeless and parolees before their descent into madness (or after a recovery program) and create hope and recovery through a paid job-skills training on forklifts, skid steers, industrial and warehouse operations, truck driving, safety, landscaping, office and administrative, and other things.

This training and on-the-job experience will provide these folks the resume they need to get placement in permanent jobs. We will also be creating landscape mulch and glass sand to add beauty to our community. Other jobs could be created. The slippery slope that descends into madness can start many ways, but creating a paid job skills training opportunity for these folks will be my way to combat the madness. Through this, we can break the cycle for some.

Of course, there are other ways to do your part. Bakersfield is a generous community. But what I learned in my previous stint at the city putting together a jobs program for the homeless is that a paid job is transformative in their lives and the charity we give to that kind of program is not a handout. Those folks work for their “charity.”

If you choose to support Recycling Lives, I can tell you that at least one of those people suffering from sleepless nights and high anxiety will get some sleep and breathe easier — me.

Before his recent retirement, Sal Moretti was superintendent of the City of Bakersfield’s Solid Waste Division. He is a board member of Kern County’s Homeless and Veterans’ collaboratives.

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