Robert Bjoraker and his family were struggling to get comfortable for the night in their extended-cab truck in below-freezing temps. “It was a sinking feeling,” said Robert. “I truly did not know what we were going to do. Then, my sixth-grade son, Aiden, reached forward from the back seat, tweaked my ear, gave me a bear-hug and said, ‘It’s OK dad, it’s going to be OK.’”
Robert Bjoraker and his family’s life hit rock-bottom on a shivering-cold February night when his wife and two sons realized they—and their two cats—would have to live in their extended-cab truck. Having been proud homeowners for many years, neither he nor his wife could believe their life had come to this—at age 50. Little did he know that Wyoming Machine would come to the rescue, turn his life around and acquire a great new employee in the process.
It all started when, after a back injury, Robert lost his job. Soon after, his wife lost her job. Then the Bjorakers eventually lost their suburban St. Paul home.
The family moved in with Robert’s brother –who then sold the home. Uprooted again, Robert and his wife, Mary Ellen, found an apartment, but their job hunts came up empty-handed. They couldn’t keep up with the rent and were evicted, making this the third time in 11 months they had to move—but to where?
Now marked with an “unlawful detainer,” (non-payment of rent), no one would rent to them. So they had no place to go, and found themselves making a “home” in their truck.
“It was a sinking feeling,” said Robert. “I truly did not know what we were going to do,” as the family struggled to get comfortable for the night. “Then,” Robert said, “my sixth-grade son, Aiden, reached forward from the back seat, tweaked my ear, gave me a bear-hug and said, ‘It’s OK dad, it’s going to be OK.’”
“We got depressed…but you have to keep fighting.”
The following day Mary Ellen called “Helping Hands,” who found a pastor with rooms to rent for those in need. And finally, the couple found jobs. Enter: management changes; exit: jobs.
Meanwhile, Tom LeTourneau, Wyoming Machine’s maintenance manager, was looking for a part-time custodian. He approached WMI’s office manager. “Linda,” Tom said, “I want to hire someone that needs to turn their life around—someone who is homeless, but wants to work–hard.” Linda called her pastor, who was housing the Bjorakers. He suggested Robert.
Finding Great Hires
Tom falls right in line with the hiring philosophy of Wyoming Machine Co-President Traci Tapani. “Look for dependable people of high character—we can teach the rest,” espouses Traci.
“I can generally tell within 10 minutes if a candidate will work,” Tom said. “When I started talking to Robert, I knew he just needed a break—and would prove himself quickly.”
“I told Tom I wanted to work,” said Robert. “Cleaning toilets wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was a wonderful job. And while working in a metal shop was totally new to me, I work hard, am positive and want to do good work.”
Doing Good—For Everyone
Tom and Traci discussed Robert. It did seem like a gamble—to hire someone who had been homeless with a spotty work history. Yet Robert genuinely wanted to turn his life around. Tom added that Robert had other skills that surpassed janitorial duties. Traci and Tom agreed that hiring Robert was the right thing to do—for many reasons.
Transportation, however, was an issue for Robert, who was without a reliable vehicle. For three weeks, he took the bus, and walked a ½-mile-plus in nearly -40 degree temps. Robert’s hours (2-7:00 PM) meant he had to take a cab home.
Robert proved himself quickly, and WMI increased his hours. Within seven months, WMI had an opportunity in production and offered Robert the job. “When Tom said we’ll put you on full time, I thought, ‘WOW! This is quicker than I thought.’ I told my wife. She was thrilled and said, ‘Great. Keep thinking positive, and positive things will happen.’”
Other Employees Help Out
But working full time meant that Robert started work before buses ran. So Robert and Tom asked around for help. True to the nature of WMI employees, Jeff Soloman, a laser cutter, offered to drive Robert. And he did for three weeks, until Robert was able to get his car repaired. As Robert put it, “Jeff said, ‘no problem’ even though it was an inconvenience for him. He’s a very nice and helpful guy.”
And Robert is thrilled to be a part of the Wyoming Machine family. “It’s small enough where we all know each others’ names. You can make a difference here. People see your work and appreciate it. You’re not just a number. Everybody is important. Each of us has our own individual skill sets and they all mesh well.
“Traci and Lori since day one… they would listen and remember everything I tell them—no matter how busy they are. I can’t say enough about them. They’ll ask about my kids—and they listen and remember. Traci and Lori really make it easy.”
A year-plus later, WMI is training Robert in metal finishing and he now spends most of his time in production. The Bjorakers now rent a home. “It’s so nice to sit out on our deck,” said Robert. Meanwhile, son Adam, a talented classical guitarist, is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, with a scholarship and grants to major in music ( click to see Adam at UWM ). And son Aiden is now in eighth grade. His A-honor roll plaque proudly hangs on the Bjoraker’s living room wall.
What did Robert’s homeless experience teach him? “I never had much time for people on hard times. But now I realize that sometimes people just need a helping hand. They need just a little help,” Robert said.
“But most of all, I learned that no matter what, we have two great, healthy kids, and we’re healthy. There’s nothing more important than that—my family.”