"I was at the wrong place at the wrong time," jokes the Reuse People founder and president Ted Reiff as he describes being in Tijuana, Mexico in 1993 during a devastating flood that killed hundreds and left thousands homeless. Reiff was working in the area on an investment venture.

"The flood was terrible," he said. "In its aftermath, plenty of people donated blankets and food, but basic shelter was another matter."

Reiff explains that many lower-income residents built their houses at lower elevations in Tijuana, and the flooding caused the most damage in the valley. The task of rebuilding was daunting because building materials were scarce. A colleague, Judy Bishop, conceived of the idea to organize a building material collection campaign to help provide shelter for the thousands of people left homeless.

The collection was coordinated across the border in Tijuana's sister city, San Diego, and was supported by the local Building Industry Association chapter and local government officials. Building materials were collected at San Diego's baseball park, Qualcom Stadium. The city's media publicized the event, and in the end, more than 400 tons of building materials were collected.

"It took 27 tractor trailer loads to carry all the stuff across the border," Reiff recalls.

After the special collection event, Bishop and Reiff discussed the possibility of turning the idea into a full-time nonprofit salvage business. "She showed me the numbers," Reiff says. "I thought it was a good idea, so we wrote up a business plan."

With borrowed equipment and a borrowed yard, The Reuse People Inc. unofficially began operations in November 1993 as a nonprofit, construction and demolition (C&D) material salvaging corporation based in San Leandro, Calif. The company officially launched in San Diego the following July.

Today, The Reuse People is dedicated to reducing the solid waste stream entering landfills by collecting building materials and redistributing them to individuals, businesses and families, including low-income families in Mexico. Reiff is the company's president and Bishop is a member of the board of directors.

Early on, Reiff says he realized the business would never flourish by merely collecting donated building materials. Consequently, The Reuse People obtained its contractor's license in 1995 and entered the demolition and salvage business. Since then, Reiff's crews have actively collected building materials at job sites throughout Southern California.

"We like to think of ourselves as deconstructionists," Reiff says. "We do a tremendous amount of residential projects ranging from carports to whole houses. We also do a lot of commercial tear-out projects."

The Reuse People has been awarded several military projects. While many military bases have closed across the United States, San Diego military bases are expanding. Recently, to make way for new buildings, The Reuse People tore down old residential housing at a San Diego Navy base and recycled the majority of the materials.

After building deconstruction, the majority of the salvaged materials is used as structural lumber, which normally is not suitable to be remilled for U.S. markets, and then is shipped to Mexico. Salvaged windows, cabinets, sinks and other interior fixtures are sold to local residents who might not be able to afford them.

"We're basically a Goodwill store for building materials," Reiff says.

All revenues go back into the operation. In addition to normal operational expenses, The Reuse People also carries $1 million in workers' compensation insurance and an additional $2 million in public liability insurance.

Many Mexican crews offer building contractors free demolition services in exchange for the salvaged material, Reiff says.

As a nonprofit organization, the Reuse People also has received grants to expand north in California.

The company is opening a new collection yard at a Waste Management Inc. transfer station in Alameda County. Another collection yard opened in July of 1999 in San Leandro. And the company is expanding into San Francisco's East Bay area.

"Waste Management was a big promoter of us [coming] on board," Reiff says. "It recycles a lot in the area, but hasn't done anything with building materials."

According to Reiff, the hottest building materials in Tijuana are discarded wooden garage doors, which often are reused as building walls and roofs. "Many homes are built entirely of garage doors," he says.

"There is a great need across the border for the stuff we discard," Reiff adds. "Mexicans have been coming across the border to [San Diego to] get used building materials for more than 100 years. There are some extremely sophisticated mom-and-pop lumber yards in Tijuana, which is a booming town. The demand for building materials is great."

As part of the Mexico trading costs, The Reuse People pays $150 in tariffs per 50 sheets of plywood. A piece of plywood costs approximately $5.

Also, the company has been hindered by San Diego's zoning ordinances, which forced the operation to move its Southern California location to Chula Vista, Calif.

Nevertheless, Reiff says diverting valuable building materials from landfills and providing affordable household fixtures is beneficial because it also provides jobs.

"We're at the lower end of the food chain in our industry," Reiff says. "We take raw recruits and teach them the basics about the construction industry. They learn about safety, how to use tools along with the terminology of the business. They're working alongside contractors, who in turn, notice the hard workers on job sites."

Contractors routinely hire The Reuse People's workers, which Reiff encourages.

"We provide a good career path for a bunch of guys," Reiff says. "That's what it's all about."