Local company donates items left behind to those in need

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published February 25, 2011

 The bathroom of a bank-owned home yields old posters and artistic cutouts. Kyle Johnson examines them to determine if they should be salvaged or trashed.

The bathroom of a bank-owned home yields old posters and artistic cutouts. Kyle Johnson examines them to determine if they should be salvaged or trashed.

Photo by Sara Kandel

The guys on the “trash-out crew” say their job is like an episode of “American Pickers.” And they’re right.

They dig through piles of broken doors and torn-up carpets to find usable items in the rubble. Except once they find them, they don’t keep them. Instead of refurbishing and selling the old furniture and bikes they come across, they donate them.

They repurpose the things left behind in foreclosed homes by donating them to local families and organizations in need.

It started as a profitable business opportunity, but soon grew into an organization employing dozens of workers, and then branched off into a charitable foundation focused on helping people in need.

Brandon Johnson and his father launched GTJ Consulting, a property management company that deals primarily with bank-owned foreclosed homes, 10 years ago, before the economy plummeted. Back then, it was just the two of them. Today, GTJ employs 101 full-time workers.

“For years, we would go into these homes and throw everything away,” said Johnson, 32, of St. Clair Shores. “Everything went into the Dumpster. And as we started getting bigger and getting more volume, we kept thinking, ‘You know, what can we do with this stuff?’ A lot of it is good.”

They find furniture, clothing, appliances, toys, instruments and tools, many in good condition.

At the end of 2008, Johnson launched GTJ Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization that enables them to donate the things they find inside foreclosed homes to needy people and organizations.

He says the foundation was his father’s brainchild. He was sick of watching all the good stuff get thrown away. But Johnson soon realized the foundation would benefit the company, too.

“We developed a few goals with that,” Johnson said. “Obviously, to go in and help out the community, but, you know, we were in an interesting position. We saw a business opportunity and took it, but we are conscious of what we are doing and we aren’t bad guys, so we wanted to do something to put a positive spin on what we were doing.”

GTJ maintains foreclosed homes, and in doing so, helps neighborhoods maintain their values as more and more homes are left vacant from foreclosures. But still they’re often associated with the foreclosure process as a whole, and Brandon saw the foundation as away to help people realize they aren’t the enemy.

He says another positive aspect of the organization is the chance that the idea might spread.

“There are a lot of other companies that do what we do,” he said. “Our thought was that if we could maybe go first and set up a program like (the one) we set up, then maybe other companies would follow suit.”

For now, though, they are just concentrating on the reason for their conception — giving back to the community.

Since its birth, GTJ Foundation has raised money for the Pancreatic Cancer Foundation at two golf outings and Cure PSP through a hockey game with Red Wings Alumni, started two annual scholarships, and donated money, labor and repurposed items to local charities and families in need.

Johnson said two local organizations they work with a lot are St. Jude’s Parish in Detroit and The Closet in St. Clair Shores, which GTJ Foundation partnered with for a holiday dinner event on Dec. 26.

“South Lake School District identified families in need that maybe weren’t going to have a nice Christmas dinner,” he said, “and they put the invitations out and we put on a nice dinner at Lakeland Manor in St. Clair Shores, and then they got to go through the Closet. They got to eat, they got a great meal and then each family got to go through and select 12 items.”

The Closet is located in Pare Elementary, a closed-down school off Nine Mile Road in St. Clair Shores, around the block from Lakeland Manor. Donna Liccardello runs it.

It’s sort of like a department store. She’s converted classrooms into tiny shops. There’s one for adults, another for children, one with appliances, books and toys, and another with prom dresses, heels and clutches. Each little classroom shop has one thing in common — everything inside is free.

Liccardello, 43, of St. Clair Shores, doesn’t charge for anything at the closet.

She says GTJ has helped her a lot. She met the guys at GTJ in October through a mutual friend.

“They took care of the heat for me because it gets so cold in here and I didn’t have it before,” Liccardello said. “To have heat in the building, especially in the kids room, was huge.”

She says GTJ also helped fund her new clothing racks. Her father hand-carves them, but GTJ paid for the lumber and stain.

“They were even nice enough to go to Home Depot and deliver the stuff to my dad’s house, and then when it got done they picked it up and delivered it back here,” Liccardello said.

Johnson says he likes working with Liccardello because everything she’s doing is out of the kindness of her heart.

“We take a lot of stuff in there and she actually cleans, washes and dries all the clothes that we bring in, and disinfects all the toys we bring in, and she just does it to do it, to help out,” he said. “She’s not a 501 (c)(3). She doesn’t get anything back. She just does it.”

The increased number of foreclosures over the past few years has enabled GTJ to donate
to multiple organizations at once. Last year, they gave 270 bikes to the Michigan Parkinson Foundation. Johnson says it was an amazing experience.

“There is nothing better than giving a bike to a kid that doesn’t have one. It makes their day, and seeing them smile is the coolest part.”

Johnson estimates that out of their local office, which covers Macomb, Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Monroe counties, they do about 25-75 houses a day. Not every house will have salvageable items, but many do. Before sending the trash-out team to do debris removal, Johnson sends them in to scout for things worth keeping.

Kyle Johnson is the vice president of GTJ and Brandon’s younger brother. He has an office at their headquarters in Roseville but goes on trash-outs with the crew. Kyle is 29. He lives in St. Clair Shores.

He says he’s found guns, toys, antiques and books, but occasionally they’ll come across something more valuable.

“We found a brand-new twin-engine Yamaha boat,” he said. “We couldn’t believe it. It was in perfect condition.”

He says big-ticket things like the boat aren’t the norm, but he never knows what he will find when on a trash-out. At the house he was recently working on, he found posters, books, carved banisters and chests, art supplies and more that dated back to the 1950s.

“We’ll donate a lot of this stuff to the Detroit Historical Society,” he said. He sifts through old windowpanes in the attic of the three-story home and lifts one up to examine it. “Can you imagine how old this is? They don’t make them like this anymore.”

He calls the debris-removal field supervisor up to the attic. Joey Wilson, 36, of St. Clair Shores, emerges from the dark staircase with a large light. There’s no electricity in the home. No heat either. “Should we start up here and work our way down?” Kyle asks him.

“There is a basement, too,” Wilson tells him. “Lots of stuff down there.”

They both seem slightly excited but refrain from smiling. “It’s actually really sad, you know?” Wilson said. “This guy whose house we are in now, he had it paid off, but took a remortgage loan out four years ago and couldn’t pay it off.”

Kyle says he feels the same, but said at least they are doing something good with the things they find left behind, something better than just throwing them away and something bigger than working just for a paycheck.

Brandon Johnson agrees. He’s excited because he feels like GTJ is becoming a part of something big in Detroit. He describes it like a movement. He calls it a feeling.

“The last 10 years in Detroit have been down-and-out. Everybody has been. You can just feel it,” he says. “Now, it’s almost like heading into spring here. Detroit’s coming back and you can feel it, and hopefully, we are a part of that in some small way.”