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Teen Aid’s Success Shop program helps people develop entrepreneurial skills

By Shannon St. Hilaire

Motivated by the rising unemployment she experienced in her own organization and witnessed in the Spokane area, LeAnna Benn, executive director of Teen Aid, began the Success Shop, a program to help disadvantaged people gain skills as entrepreneurs to go into business for themselves.

As a non-sectarian organization that educates teens and families about relationships and character-building, Teen Aid’s goal is to promote successful strategies and to strengthen families, she said.

The Success Shop is a new take on the mission of Teen Aid, which promotes relationship skills and decision-making, LeAnna said.

The main reason relationships break up is lack of financial literacy, she noted.  “People need to have money to have a budget. Many people are in relationships with no financial reality.”

By showing people a way to become financially stable using their own skills, she helps them find stability in their relationships.

“We want to improve families by improving relationships,” she said.  “Relationship skills are also essential in running a business.  It’s now more important than it was 20 years ago.”     

The Success Shop started in March, when Teen Aid lost federal funding and 14 employees.  When she saw her former employees having trouble finding work, LeAnna realized “the problem is the economic environment, not the people.”

With only three employees left and no funding for its usual programs and marriage classes, “we looked around and thought about what we could do,” she said. “We have a building and professional printing capabilities, and we can help the people who need help.”

Through work she does at Off-Broadway, a halfway house for transitioning into the work force, she met people who are not ready to handle money.

LeAnna began the Success Shop in order to prepare entrepreneurs with criminal records for other employment programs.

“Some people have skills but no house or phone.  Some have been out of work for five years, and some have felony records,” she said. “They can’t find jobs.”

Noting that people with criminal records are not even hired as garbage collectors, LeAnna believes the solution is for them to start their own businesses based on skills they already have, using the Success Shop as the back office, providing business resources necessary to begin.

“We have plumbers, florists, people who make products and have skills, but are afraid,” she said. “We deal with their fear.”

The Success Shop offers different levels of support based on each client’s needs.  The entrepreneurs have access to the nonprofit’s volunteers who help them prepare business plans, file for business licenses, provide leads for clients, produce promotional materials and do bookkeeping, but the goal is to prepare them to move forward.

“It is a business to launch new businesses,” said LeAnna, who, as a mother of six, considers her purpose in life to be launching others.

The Success Shop has helped 15 groups with book publishing, freelance event planning and starting construction companies. 

One client is a woman convicted of one minor felony at the age of 18.  At 48, after being a stay-at-home mom, she was unable to find employment because of her record.  Since she has started working with the Success Shop, she is ready to start her own business.

Once a month, Teen Aid hosts a working group—financial planners, pastors, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, a legislator and a city council member—who help smooth the cycle of starting a business.

One of the Success Shop’s businesses, Custom Cedar Buildings, has benefited and even gained capital from the working group.  The owners, who came directly from prison or the streets, have built several sheds in Spokane.

LeAnna knows it is difficult to recover from homelessness and prison.   From her work at halfway houses, she has learned that many people on the streets have skills, but “it is difficult to keep all aspects of life in balance.  It takes them years to stabilize.  When one aspect of their lives fails, it takes them a long time to recover, depending on how long they have been on the streets.”

She taught a class at Airway Heights Corrections Center, where she met an ex-felon who had been sober three years.  When his girlfriend and he broke up, he offended again.

However, LeAnna does not worry about her clients re-offending, adding that “when people are doing the right stuff, they don’t have time for the wrong stuff.”

She said they need resources and hope for their futures in order to recover from their pasts.

She also noted that those who have just left prison or the street are not accustomed to working long hours. When they start their own businesses, they can choose their hours and “build up their work muscles.”

LeAnna’s inspiration is her father, who was disabled from a war injury and could only work a few hours a day.  He ran rental houses and “did great work at his own pace,” she said, “but no one wanted to hire him. There are many people like my dad.”

The program serves workers who are “too old for an employer to want to hire, but not old enough to retire,” she said. “They have had many years to develop skills and can start their own businesses.

“Older workers have skills and even years to contribute to the work force,” she said, drawing from her experience of  hiring a 60 year-old man who “gave seven loyal years of service.”

While most of the Success Shop’s clients are older and have records, she would like to expand the services to include other disadvantaged groups with potential, including 19- to 24-year-olds who have no experience and veterans coming home to their families.

She wants to reach out to other nonprofits that help with business and employment skills to form a network on which clients can rely.

In a few years, LeAnna envisions 50 successful clients moving on to an agency with more resources and working with another 100.

“Hope is lacking in the employment industry, especially in Spokane,” she said.  “We want people to see that there is hope.”

For information, call 482-2868 or email teenaid@teen-aid.org.