Social Enterprise: Serving People and The Planet in Denver South and Beyond

Blue Star Recyclers and Cherry Creek School District celebrate six years of innovative vocational training and meaningful employment for special education students.

One of the core tenants of social enterprise is the creation of organizations that address a basic unmet need or solve a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approach. It’s a powerful and growing global trend. Think of it as business as a force for good in the world.

Here locally, Blue Star Recyclers is a great example. A nonprofit social enterprise founded in Colorado in 2009, Blue Star has a powerful mission of creating new jobs for people with autism and other disabilities through certified electronics recycling. Since their inception Blue Star has recycled over 21 million pounds of electronics, and in the process has created over 50 permanent jobs in Colorado at their locations in Denver, Colorado Springs and Boulder.

In late 2014 Blue Star won a bid to provide certified electronics recycling services to one of Denver South’s leading school districts, the Cherry Creek School District (CCSD,) the third largest district in Colorado with over 60,000 students enrolled in 70 campuses. While on campus in the early days of the partnership, Blue Star’s founders had the great fortune to meet the District’s special education transitions program team, which serves 18- to 21-year-old students with disabilities. One of the team’s primary goals is to help students find employment before aging out of their program and going either back home or into resource intensive services. Employers often express willingness to help, but internships rarely turn into permanent employment for a number of reasons. Blue Star and CCS set out to do something about that.

With support from Dr. Tony Poole, CCSD’s Director of Instruction, numerous departments came together to build a program where the District’s electronic waste could be used to provide training and employment for special ed students before they aged out of services.

The concept was based on a win-win-win approach: The student benefits by receiving training and a direct bridge to employment. CCSD benefits by helping their students find employment and making sure their electronics are recycled ethically. Blue Star benefits by creating a pipeline of fully trained and qualified job candidates.

The program was born in late 2014 in a converted shop class at Overland High School. Four years later CCSD moved the program to their new district resource center in Centennial. To date, dozens of students have been trained and Blue Star just hired their eighth  employee from the program. One student changed jobs to Sam’s Club because it was closer to his home, but all are still employed.

The payoff?  For the 10th consecutive year Blue Star employees have posted zero absenteeism, zero lost-time accidents and less than 10 percent annual turnover.

“We believe the partnership with CCSD is responsible for much of that success,” says Blue Star founder, Bill Morris. “When a special education student is fully trained on campus their productivity and reliability, once on the job, are without equal.”

This innovative partnership, alongside other successful endeavors, has inspired Blue Star to expand their powerful mission beyond Colorado. In 2019 they opened a new Blue Star operations in Buffalo Grove, Ill., through a partnership with Mitsubishi Electric America. In June of 2020 they will open new Blue Star operations in the Roaring Fork Valley a few hours drive west of Denver.  You can also find their model replicated in Omaha, Neb., Nashville, Tenn., and Fort Wayne, Ind.; and internationally in Santiago, Chile.

They’re also looking to grow right here in Denver South. As a non-profit they’re always accepting donations directly at www.bluestarrecyclers.org or through Colorado Gives https://www.coloradogives.org/BlueStarRecyclers/overview. And  Blue Star is seeking enterprise, government and other partners to provide the raw material—electronic waste—they use to turn into jobs.

If your organization, or someone you know, would like to be the next partner of this powerful organization, please contact Lorin Marco with Blue Star Recyclers lorin@bluestarrecyclers.com.

Tell them Denver South sent you!

Judy Paukovich (left) coaches Kian Phair, 20, as they try to take apart an old computer Jan. 29 at Overland High School. Phair is one of a handful of transitional students with special education needs between the ages of 18 and 21 who are taking an electronic recycling program. The students strip down old Cherry Creek computers and learn life skills to help them get jobs outside of the classroom. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)