06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Art Webster pours a pitcher of molten green wax into molds, where it will cool into votive candles. "I love being here," says Webster, 45, whose past battles with alcoholism cost him his marriage and nearly put him on the street. "Get a life? This is it."
Webster and some 46 coworkers are either formerly homeless or suffer from physical or mental disabilities—multiple sclerosis, retardation or strokes—that made many of them virtually unemployable before Michael and Lynette Richards hired them to work at Candleworks in Iowa City. "At a normal job, if someone finds out you have a serious problem, you're probably going to be terminated," says Michael, 48. "Here problems are out front, and no one feels they have to hide them."
Doing good while doing well is paying off. Today the company the Richardses founded five years ago churns out some 500,000 candles in 92 styles that are sold in shops around the country to the tune of $800,000 in gross revenues last year. (It is expected to start turning a profit next year.) On June 1, Vice President Al Gore presented the couple, who just signed an $80,000 contract to make aromatherapy candles for beauty-products company Aveda, with the National Small Business Owner of the Year Award for Welfare-to-Work.
Candleworks employees earn $6 an hour, 85 cents above the federal minimum wage, after a month's probation. Of course not every worker works out. Some move on to other jobs; others fall back into substance abuse. "No one at Candleworks gets fired," says Lynette, 47, "but people have the opportunity to fire themselves." Explains Michael: "If someone shows up drunk or high, they're immediately escorted to the door." After four such slipups, the employee is terminated. The couple nurture employees who stay, even lending them money for rent deposits. "There's very much a family feel to the business," says Aveda spokeswoman Michelle Sahlstrom.
"We don't go to church on Sunday," says Michael,, "but we're absolutely convinced that there's a deeper meaning to life and that people are connected." The Richardses' commitment was forged by intimate experience with alcoholism and poverty. Michael's first marriage, to Susan Hayes, an alcoholic with whom he had Michael Jr., now 29, and Benjamin, 28, ended in 1973 (she died in 1991 after ingesting two bottles of vodka). Michael met Lynette on a camping trip to Latin America in 1977. They were married in 1978, and Michael raised Susan's younger children, Solomon, now 19, and Mel, 15. The family moved to New York City in 1987 after son Michael was accepted at New York University. When Michael Sr. lost his job managing a restaurant that year, they slipped into hard times in the East Village. "If someone asked for a quarter," says Michael, "I'd stop to talk. We didn't have a quarter to spare."
To make ends meet—and help the down-and-outers of their neighborhood—the Richardses turned their apartment into a makeshift candle factory. "We wanted a simple product that we could get to the market without experience," says Michael. Enlisting homeless people to make the candles, the Richardses rang up sales of $92,000 in 1993, Candleworks' first year.
To keep costs low while expanding the business, the couple moved Candleworks to Iowa, their home state, in 1994, again recruiting employees from homeless shelters. The Richardses live simply, paying themselves "just often enough to barely survive," says Michael. "We have the great fortune of having discovered a lifetime mission," he adds. "I can't see ever doing something else."
Joanne Fowler in Iowa City