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Build Your Business: Shop Talk
Opening New Avenues
New Avenues for Youth’s Sara Weihmann says screen printing resonates with so many at-risk youth because of its graphical, visual nature.
Sara Weihmann can easily explain the mission of Portland, Oregon-based New Avenues for Youth, citing how it provides skills and support services to assist local youth in exiting street life. As the organization’s enterprise director, she has no difficulty discussing the nonprofit organization’s job-readiness training program that teaches participants various “soft skills” that are required for real-world applications, regardless of vocation.
But Weihmann’s real joy comes from discussing success stories whose foundations are laid at New Avenues INK, a social enterprise owned and operated by New Avenues for Youth. Launched in spring 2013, the enterprise provides paid job training and real-world experiences for Portland’s transient, at-risk foster and homeless youth.
Weihmann mentions the “couch-surfing” intern from an unstable housing situation who had no work experience and was “on the fence” about going to college.
“He got placed at New Avenues INK as an intern and ended up being so naturally geared toward [screen printing] that he [excelled] and ended up getting promoted to different levels [of the program], then transitioning out to a larger screen-printing shop locally,” she recalls. “After a year or so, he actually came back to New Avenues INK and worked with us for the summer just to help with the busy season. Now, he’s working here full time and is not only a key production staffer for us, but he’s also in a mentorship role where he’s supporting other youth.”
There’s also the young woman who wasn’t inspired by any of her previous jobs. However, after starting as an intern and demonstrating promise in the New Avenues INK work environment, she was promoted to the sales department and ended up “essentially running it,” Weihmann says. “We incentivized her with another promotion to assistant manager if she completed her GED, which she did. She recently transitioned to a local screen-printing shop and is now the office manager there.”
Such successes make it clear that the New Avenues INK story isn’t one of just another screen-printing shop focused on efficient production, optimized workflow and a healthy bottom line. Rather, it’s one of reaching out to youth in need, offering them chances to travel the path to self-sustainability and helping them become successful in a professional setting.
Oh, and they get to screen print T-shirts in the process.
Structure & Curriculum
New Avenues for Youth is part of a continuum of multiple Portland-based agencies that focus on homeless youth outreach and support services. The differentiating factor is New Avenues for Youth’s employment and career-readiness training, Weihmann says. After completing job training, which includes learning the soft skills involved in getting and keeping a job, program participants can test the workplace waters in one of New Avenues for Youth’s enterprises, including New Avenues INK.
“Our shop is set up to respond to two types of young people,” Weihmann says. “The first is people who are just interested in an entry-level job and [aren’t] so interested in the screen-printing industry, so they’re getting soft skills that can translate to any job they [get] in the future. The other [type] is someone who develops such a tremendous interest in the [screen-printing] industry that we take more of a personalized approach with them, whether it be training them in the graphic arts side of things or the sales side of things to supplement training on the technical screen-printing side.”
Three internship levels are offered, each with its own curriculum. For example, production interns learn the steps to tasks such as burning screens, mixing custom ink colors, performing accurate press registration, ensuring quality control, packaging and more. Sales and marketing interns learn best practices in customer service and social media, as well as using software such as the Adobe suite and customer-management programs.
What makes screen printing such an attractive vocation for marginalized and homeless youth? Weihmann says it’s because it’s at the intersection of graphic arts and industry. “The physical task of pulling ink through a screen to produce images on a T-shirt is satisfying and [the] progress is visual,” she says. “At the end of the day, you can look at something tangible and walk away with the feeling that you contributed to a customer’s order.”
She also says young people are attracted to the digital design programs, and social-media and customer-service aspects that are standard components of the New Avenues INK job-training experience.
Partnerships & Customers
As noble as New Avenues INK’s mission is, the reality is it takes more than employees and interns to run a productive, profitable screen-printing shop. Functional equipment, capital assets and other resources also are required.
Weihmann says the organization has established partnerships with local companies and foundations to secure funding to purchase equipment. New Avenues INK also has partnered with at least one decorated-apparel industry supplier for production equipment.
“Our screen-printing equipment was purchased at a discounted rate from local vendor and proud supporter of New Avenues INK, Ryonet,” Weihmann says. “Our computers and other equipment was a capital investment made possible by local foundation Meyer Memorial Trust. Rent of our business space has been provided by [another] partner, Key Bank.”
The organization uses the equipment to produce apparel and promotional products for a wide range of clients, including sports teams, local nonprofits, hospitals and corporations. The customer roster includes the Portland Trail Blazers, Providence Health, Portland General Electric, Campfire Columbia, Hands On Portland and more.
“We [also] have leaned heavily on other screen-printing shops to further learn best practices for scaling our business, including other social enterprises that offer screen- printing services,” Weihmann says.
Future plans for New Avenues INK come down to one word: scalability. Weihmann says the organization’s goal is to offer more internships and job-training experiences.
“The key to [achieving this goal] is developing long-term customer relationships with organizations, corporations and other nonprofit organizations that have high-volume and frequent orders throughout the year,” she says. “Similarly, we aim to grow our additional revenue streams from promotional and print items, to embroidery, direct-to-garment, etc.”
New Avenues INK at a Glance
Company Name: New Avenues INK
Address: 1445 NW Lovejoy St., Portland, OR 97209
No. of Employees: 4 full-time and 2-6 interns
Decorating Methods Offered: Screen printing, promotional products, graphic design
Company Website: newavenuesink.org
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