“The trajectory is long – it can take people a long time to get where they want to go. Part of that is getting kids on a journey that they’ll enjoy, and that they choose.”
The amount of learning that takes place at home, around a dinner table, is easy to take for granted. Paul Ramsour, executive director at Elpis Enterprises, believes that Elpis is filling that gap for youth experiencing homelessness. “Elpis is that table to support,” said Paul. The Elpis Enterprises team is always thinking about how to plug young people into networks and equip them with life skills that will give them the power to choose their path forward.
Building Birdfeeders and a Path Forward
Elpis (Greek for “hope”) Enterprises is a supportive employment program for youth experiencing homeless ages 16-23 in the Twin Cities. As a work-readiness nonprofit, it uses a social enterprise model aimed at giving young people the skills that will equip them for future success, whether that means staying in school, moving on to employment of their choosing, or finding stable housing. 63% of young people completing Elpis Enterprises’ program were connected to employment or education programs.
Elpis Enterprises has a full-service screen printing business that makes promotional apparel and bags, as well as a wood product enterprise that includes birdfeeders, nesting boxes made from recycled cedar fencing, and DIY wood kits. One of its biggest programs is its experiential community workshops; Elpis Enterprises partners with community ed programs, nature centers, and parks and recreation departments to provide building programs with over 1,200 youth annually. At these building training workshops, young people get to work with and teach other young people.
“A small business environment is good because young people can see the full operation from start to finish, and see how it relates to something larger,” said Paul of the value of the social enterprises when used for youth development. The profits made from these products and services support the work of the nonprofit, which supplements its work with grants and individual donations.
The work of Elpis Enterprises goes beyond just birdfeeders and t-shirts. Youth learn adaptive skills like workplace expectations and behavior, while also starting to learn what they like and how to map out a path-oriented plan. “We tell kids, if you want to be a bank president, you can’t get there overnight – you have to map out a strategy for how to gain those skills and look for those opportunities.”
Aligning Around a Social Enterprise Model
A few years ago, Paul participated in one of Propel Nonprofits’ social enterprise cohorts to help clarify the nonprofit’s business model. Unlike nonprofits who look to add social enterprise as an earned income stream, Elpis Enterprises had started out solely as a social enterprise under the Minneapolis Jaycees Charitable Foundation. When the Foundation decided to wind down, it granted its remaining assets to Elpis Enterprises, which incorporated as its own nonprofit in 2002 and partnered with YouthLink in Minneapolis to carry out the work in tandem with other youth programming.
Elpis Enterprises received funding in 2014 to be a stand-alone organization. Since then, it has been on an upward trajectory. Last year, they reached out to Mario Hernandez, Propel’s strategic services director, to conduct a strategic plan. For Paul, the founder of Elpis Enterprises and its leader for 16 years, one goal of the planning process was to get everyone bought into a shared vision about the nonprofit’s future. “When you’re the founder of the organization, you’re trying to get others to share the vision and help you get there, but also to help you create a vision that you might not have ever thought about,” said Paul. “A strategic plan helps you get there.”
Elpis Enterprises recently moved to a new location on University Avenue in Saint Paul and used most of its cash reserve for moving expenses. It also recently purchased an embroidery machine to diversify its social enterprise revenue mix. To replenish its cash flow during its slow season, Elpis received a working capital loan from Propel, which it will repay as its earned revenue starts to pick up during the spring.
Mapping a New Trajectory
Paul himself is a testament to what applied learning looks like, as well how much a life and a career can pivot. After more than a decade in the hospitality business, he knew he wanted to do something different, but youth development wasn’t the obvious next step. “When I started volunteering with the Jaycees Foundation, I didn’t know anything about working with kids, about woodworking, or about social enterprise,” Paul admitted. “My experience before working with the Jaycees was pretty much that I had been a youth.”
However, Paul loved seeing the lives of young people evolve, started saying yes to opportunities as they came, and eventually got his Masters in youth development from the University of Minnesota. As he tells the young people at Elpis Enterprises: “The trajectory is long – it can take people a long time to get where they want to go. Part of that is getting kids on a journey that they’ll enjoy, and that they choose.”
To learn more about Elpis Enterprises – and to check out its online store – visit its website: https://www.elpisenterprises.org/.
Photos: Elpis Enterprises