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Building Bonds at Iron Bridge

Owner Robert Littrell cuts wood for a cutting board on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 in the Iron Bridge Woodshop in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Martha McHaney.

Tucked in the backstreets of Lexington off Winchester Road, the Iron Bridge Woodshop welcomes the homeless with warm coffee and smiles.

The shop has seen its fair share of bonds formed over the hours of woodworking that take place there. The woodshop is an oasis of healing; Littrell said it is a positive and stable environment for the homeless.

“The nicest thing you can do for a homeless person is look them in the eye and say, ‘Hello,’’’ said Robert Littrell over the loud buzzes of machinery in the woodshop.

Littrell started the Iron Bridge Woodshop in conjunction with Six Treasures Ministry, a nonprofit that he and his wife, Leslie, established in 2008. Though homeless men (and a few women) enter the woodshop to craft handmade pieces, the goal is that they leave the woodshop with newly established relationships, said Littrell.

Since Littrell opened the woodshop, many homeless people have been able to write a brighter chapter of their story as they walk through the doors of Iron Bridge. One of these individuals is Nathaniel Buck, a 62-year-old whose battle with depression and experience with being homeless changed the trajectory of his life.

“I’ve had my bad years, and you know what? God did all that for me, to change me, to make me a better person. I’m not sorry that it happened,” Buck said.

Inside Iron Bridge sits not only woodworking equipment but a washing machine and dryer, a shower and a common place is in the works. This will allow the homeless and volunteers to gather in fellowship. All these amenities are available for those who are without a place to call home.

The Iron Bridge Woodshop partners volunteers with the homeless, giving them the opportunity to form bonds and be treated like equals.

Littrell said he built many of his ideas for the woodshop around the premise that the homeless often get hand-me-downs or second best; Littrell sought to make Iron Bridge a place where these individuals felt like they were the priority. He made this vision come to life through giving the men good meals, fresh coffee, a place to freshen up and the opportunity to create pieces that people love.

A volunteer works on the wood machinery in the Iron Bridge Woodshop on Thursday, July 22, 2021 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Martha McHaney.

The shop is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, allowing volunteers and homeless individuals to come in and craft a variety of items alongside one another, including cutting boards, ornaments, chess boards, charcuterie boards and more.

Littrell and his wife came up with the name “Six Treasures Ministry” for their nonprofit because of two specific parts of the Bible that stood out to them: Matthew 6:21 and 1 Timothy 6. Matthew 6:21 says that your heart is where your treasure is, and 1 Timothy 6 discusses generosity and the rich giving to others. Littrell stressed the importance of these verses in making the lifestyle change that his family did whenever they started opening their doors to the homeless over a decade ago.

“I always say if you want to know what’s important to somebody, look at their checkbook and their calendar,” Littrell said.

These verses changed the Littrells’ mindset and way of living entirely, he said. Before starting the ministry, Robert was a College of Pharmacy professor at the University of Kentucky for 15 years, and he started a pharmaceutical analytics company called Artemetrx.

Iron Bridge Woodshop was not the Littrells’ first method of serving the homeless population; before the woodshop came home gatherings. Littrell and his family host weekly Bible studies and Friday night gatherings every other week.

Buck attributes a lot of his escape from depression and homelessness to Six Treasures, the work they have done and the relationships he has made through the ministry. Although the ministry itself does not have a routine of helping with job placement, they do occasionally help homeless individuals to build resumes and find jobs. Recently, Buck was employed by Littrell’s son at his Italian ice business, J&T’s Italian Ice.

“This is my family,” Buck said.

Although he went through more than most people have to endure, Buck is grateful for his journey, especially his time at the Iron Bridge Woodshop.

An empty shop waits for volunteers to come build on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 in the Iron Bridge Woodshop in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Martha McHaney.

Living a life of generosity has not only changed the lives of those in need who have benefitted from Robert and Leslie’s ministry work but the couple’s two kids as well, said Littrell.

The couple’s 29-year-old son, Ben, was so inspired by his parents’ outlook on helping others that he and his wife decided to foster a child who was born prematurely and addicted to drugs. The child is now four.

Robert said that their 22-year-old daughter, Bailey, travels to help those in need all over the world.

The woodshop itself was a direct product of Robert’s daughter wanting a cutting board for Christmas. When his wife asked him to build one, Robert enlisted the help of a friend who was at his house at the time, John. After making the cutting board for his daughter, Robert and John made more cutting boards as Christmas gifts for others.

The finished product and the process of making it was so successful that Robert said he began hosting weekly woodworking sessions in his basement, inviting homeless men and volunteers to participate. The woodworking sessions turned into bonding over a home-cooked meal and spending time handcrafting pieces and building relationships with one another.

In 2019, Littrell set up a fundraiser in order to have sufficient funds to buy machinery and expand their work area. This is when they became the Iron Bridge Woodshop.

Since then, the shop has grown very popular, especially since they have had more news coverage.

“Sometime right after Thanksgiving, one of the TV stations did a story, and we were overwhelmed with orders. We ended up selling over $18,000 of stuff literally all in like a 45 day period,” Littrell said. The woodshop makes chess boards, cutting boards, charcuterie boards, and more.

He also said that the shop continued to gain popularity after the Queen’s Gambit themed room, “The Harmon Room,” opened at the 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington and used an Iron Bridge crafted chess board in the room.

Although there are a steady stream of volunteers that come to the increasingly popular woodshop, none of them are paid for their time — including Littrell. Likewise, the homeless who spend time crafting pieces are not directly paid for their efforts. However, Six Treasures does help those men out in any way they can.

A cutting board made by volunteers in the Iron Bridge Woodshop on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Martha McHaney.

The benefit of working in the woodshop pays off in the form of connections, friendly faces who truly care about you, having a place to freshen up and being taken care of in the instance that you need it.

Buck said that when he was in need, Six Treasures came through for him.

Buck was a restaurant manager in his mid-40’s with an increasingly stressful life. Within a short period, he said he lost his job, became the primary caregiver for his mother who had had a stroke and had to cope with a broken engagement.

For a while, Buck said he lived off a family inheritance, but he began to fall into a deep depression. Things spiraled downhill fast, and Buck ended up becoming homeless.

A couple years ago, Buck had to have a serious abdominal procedure, and Six Treasures Ministry paid for him to stay in a hotel for two weeks, then he returned to the Hope Center, a homeless shelter in Lexington. Within two days, he got a major infection that landed him in the hospital for another week.

Following that hospital stay, the ministry paid for him to stay in a hotel for another six weeks to give him time to heal. This is one way that Six Treasures uses the money from the woodshop to give back to the homeless.

Buck said that Littrell will drop everything to help another person. “His compassion comes through and he’ll help whoever needs to be helped no matter what the situation is,” Buck said.

He still comes into Iron Bridge around three times a week, but he is no longer homeless. Buck said his life was changed for the better by the Littrell family, volunteers, other homeless individuals at Iron Bridge and the grace of God.

“So they’ve got me. Whatever they need. The fellowship and the amount of concern of Robert Littrell — I’m not going to cry — he’s probably just about the best person that you could ever know,” Buck said.


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