PORTLAND — On May 4 in Augusta, Margo Walsh will receive a big award from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
But on March 25, she was just as happy to see Ryan Dewar and Justin Landry, employees who stopped by MaineWorks LLC, on break from painting apartments for Avesta Housing.
“The power of this business is about empathy,” said Walsh, who on March 16 was named the SBA’s Small Business Person of the Year for Maine.
MaineWorks, established in 2011, provides laborers for construction, bridge and road-building jobs.
“I set out to dignify the experience of being a temp,” Walsh said. “They are showing up, they are willing to forgo social services in order to get a check. It happens to involve a lot of people in recovery or re-entry.”
It is more than dignifying for the staff, which can grow to as many as 80 employees during construction season. It is a huge boost on the road of active recovery, because Walsh hires former substance users. Some are just ending jail or prison terms; all need structure in their lives, and a paycheck.
“This has meant the freedom to live a life I know I deserve, but I have forgotten about for several years,” Dewar said.
Once an opioid user, Dewar is now a MaineWorks manager. He said his active recovery began with the Salvation Army in Portland, which gave him the structure to get up and go to work.
“It was difficult at first, because I was still detoxing at that point. It took two months before I could sleep normally,” Dewar said. “But I was getting up for breakfast and doing a 40-hour work week.”
Walsh said Dewar has also been a great match for Landry, who recently completed a 90-day jail sentence directly linked to opioid use. After leaving the detox program at the Milestone Foundation in Portland, Landry said he was arrested for possessing some of the same heroin that had already killed two people that week.
Landry said he took stock of his life while serving time in three different county jails.
“I had a plan, so I started with Margo, and it has led to a structured life,” he said. “This has opened up the doors to be able to live.”
Walsh’s business relies on providing solid, dependable labor for her clients. She has to be selective about whom she hires – prospects must demonstrate their commitment to recovery – but she does not discuss their pasts when assigning them jobs.
“Here’s my guys, period,” she said. “Our jurisprudence says they have served their time.”
Walsh has also had her struggles with substance use, and said she has not had alcohol since 1997. Her career includes human resources work, but she was a just-divorced, stay-at-home mother with two children, and taking care of sick parents, when she started MaineWorks.
She was also receiving public assistance, and used to display her electronic benefits card at the MaineWorks office on Pleasant Street.
Walsh said great advice from the Service Corps of Retired Executives, best-known as SCORE, and SBA financing from People’s United Bank got the company going.
“I brought this idea on the back of a napkin” to SCORE seminars, she said.
Walsh was nominated for the SBA award by Douglas Collins and Alan Shaver of the Portland Chapter of SCORE.
“Margo Walsh embodies the true entrepreneurial spirit of Maine,” Portland SCORE Chairwoman Nancy Stronjys said. “She created a company that combines a social mission with a for-profit enterprise.”
Walsh said she created something even more important to her.
“It is my whole life’s work. Other than my kids, nothing else matters,” she said. “I knew I would do this. I knew I would do something that would be a facilitator for people.”
Margo Walsh, left, of MaineWorks with employees Ryan Dewar and Justin Landry in Portland on March 25. Walsh, who employs people in active recovery from substance use disorder, is the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Person of the Year for Maine.