“We all need saving:" Woodworking shop caters to convicted felons, leading them into productive lives

WAUKESHA (WITI) -- Finding a job when you're a convicted felon isn't easy! But there's a group in Waukesha looking at this often overlooked population, and working to give them a second chance -- leading former prisoners into productive lives.

Among some of the best craftsmen in the state this past October, Mike Oberbrunner and his business partner Daniel Wood made their first appearances in Milwaukee’s annual “Fine Furnishings Show.”  The event drew a huge crowd when it was held at the Harley-Davidson Museum.

From blocks of wood Oberbrunner and his team have created stunning pieces.  This kind of beauty can only be achieved by hard work.  After all, every smooth surface was once raw.

“We all need saving at times in our lives,” Oberbrunner said.

A pastor for 17 years, Oberbrunner is taking a new a leap of faith -- working with the roughest material society has to offer.

“Every piece of furniture in there is designed for a person coming out of prison with limited skills," Oberbrunner said.

"The New Man Project" is a non-profit Oberbrunner started that creates and sells custom-made furniture crafted by men recently released from jail.  Within the walls of Oberbrunner’s workshop, ex-cons are called “returning citizens.”

“I’m not a bleeding heart, so to say.  They did the crime and they need to pay society back for that crime. Once they pay society back for that crime, I think their debt is paid and we need to come alongside them and help them," Oberbrunner said.

Alex Farchmin is the shop's first hire. His addiction to prescription painkillers had him bouncing in and out of jail.

“I got out for a little bit and I relapsed within 24 hours and I was right back in jail after the first time they let me out. The second time I made it about a month and I was right back in.  That’s addiction for you," Farchmin said.

Farchmin is sober now, but like many “returning citizens,” he still faces a huge challenge when looking for employment.

“I could be clean for 60 years and it’s not going to make a difference. I’m still going to be a felon," Farchmin said.

The “New Man Project” is about more than just a paycheck.

“With these individuals, one of the main things we want to focus on is that they are not defined by the mistakes they have made in the past," Daniel Wood, Oberbrunner's business partner said.

Wood previously worked in a cabinet shop before partnering with Oberbrunner in Waukesha.  He’s also a veteran, returning to the area in 2010 after serving in the Marine Corps.  He can relate to the men working alongside him.  After his time in Iraq, he too was a new man.

“I had a new identity.  I was no longer a soldier.  I was a productive member of society,” Wood said.

Wood and Oberbrunner’s goal is to work with as many individuals as possible while calling attention to a huge problem.

“It’s a huge cost on society. The recidivism rate is 65% after two years.  We’re paying huge amounts of money to keep these guys in prison," Oberbrunner said.

So far, they’ve helped about a half-dozen returning citizens as either hired employees or volunteers.  They rely on referrals from groups like the Salvation Army and a large network of local churches.  Sales from the products and donated items pay the workers' wages.

“There’s a lot of pride in it. Sometimes when you’re finished with it, you almost don’t even want to sell it!  It’s like one of your children," Farchmin said.

Pride is a component, but at its foundation, "The New Man Project" is about faith.

“The guys entering our program will be connected to one of the churches working with us.  They will have mentors and support within the church structure,” Oberbrunner said.

But while others around him move toward better futures, Oberbrunner’s is uncertain.

“Recently, I was diagnosed with cancer – so who knows what God has in store," Oberbrunner said.

There’s little doubt this calling is already making a big impact.

“It’s very difficult to overcome the barriers to re-enter society.  We need to all come alongside and help,” Oberbrunner said.

Once they establish themselves with "The New Man Project," Oberbrunner and Wood help the returning citiznes to launch their own business.

You can check out the workshop on West Wisconsin Avenue in Waukesha right along the Fox River.  "The New Man Project" also does custom orders.

CLICK HERE to learn more about "The New Man Project."