When your mission is to empower youth who are in the foster care system, court involved, experiencing homelessness, or out of school to take charge of their lives, where do you begin? For Jodi Rosenbaum, Executive Director of More Than Words, the answer is simple: empower them to take charge of a business.
When your mission is to empower youth who are in the foster care system, court involved, experiencing homelessness, or out of school to take charge of their lives, where do you begin?
For Jodi Rosenbaum, Executive Director of More Than Words (MTW), the answer is simple: empower them to take charge of a business. A former public school teacher who has also worked in the child and juvenile justice system, Rosenbaum was inspired when a friend found a pile of used books on the curb on trash day and saw they were worth money online. What began in 2004 as a small used book-selling enterprise employing four teenagers from a local group home, has grown to two locations in Waltham and Boston, Massachusetts, including a robust online book-selling venture, storefront bookstore, and Starbucks cafe.
Jodi believes that “the greatest form of innovation is human transformation.” Through More Than Words, Jodi and her colleagues provide youth with the opportunity and support they need to transform their own lives and to map plans for their future education, work, and life. Although the youth employed at MTW are faced with “significant obstacles and challenges, [they] defy the low, watered-down expectations placed on them by society by shifting stereotypes and assumptions,” says Jodi.
MTW is designed for youth ages 16-21. While they are enrolled in the program, they have two jobs: the BUSINESS-Job and the YOU-Job. In the BUSINESS-Job, youth work 20-30 hours per week where they learn marketable skills for their future, such as managing their own online and retail book business, café, and community space. Yet the true innovation behind MTW is the YOU-Job, a 6-12 month intensive case management and support program that helps youth develop an action plan for their transition into meaningful jobs and/or college. With support from their transition managers, youth obtain essential items such as personal IDs, bank accounts, health care, housing, and legal services. MTW is committed to ensuring a successful transition to self-sufficiency in adulthood by providing continued community support to program graduates for a minimum of 2 years after they transition out of the social enterprise.
In 2012, 110 youth received hands-on job training, intensive case management, educational support, and career coaching, as well as participated in financial literacy workshops. By remaining in contact with their graduates, MTW has been able to evaluate outcomes of their program. For example, 24-months after program completion, 95 percent of graduates have remained in contact with MTW. Of those who have remained in touch, 88 percent have earned their GED or high school diploma1; 78 percent are engaged in work and/or education2; and 4 percent are court involved, compared to over 30 percent when they initially enrolled in MTW. Aside from the positive outcomes for its graduates, an additional strength of the organization is its cost-effectiveness: 30 percent of the organization’s budget is covered by the youth because they run the business.
The success of MTW can be attributed to many different elements of the program. One could argue that the straightforward nature of their model—providing youth with compassionate accountability, concrete work experience, and a plan for the future—has led to their success. Others might say it is a combination of hard work, dedication, and the innovative vision of Jodi and her colleagues.
After visiting their South Boston location, I would say their success can be attributed to all of the above, though these statements alone do not capture the true essence of More Than Words. MTW has created an environment where youth are more than employees—they are partners. When I arrived, I was met by two youth who gave me a wonderful tour of the site. Fresh vases of sunflowers surrounding tables where they work on their YOU-Job made it clear that no detail has been overlooked in creating a warm, welcoming space for the youth. Everyone with whom I spoke beamed with excitement and an obvious love of their jobs. It is clear that everyone is there because they want to be, and their enthusiasm is contagious.
It is no surprise that youth speak with such conviction when they say, “I am more than words.”
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1. Nationwide, over 60% of youth in foster care do not have a high school degree. Retrieved from http://www.chapinhall.org/research/report/midwest-evaluation-adult-functioning-former-foster-youth↩
2. Estimates suggest that only 7 to 13 percent of students from foster care enroll in higher education. Retrieved from http://www.casey.org/Resources/Publications/BuildingCampusSupport.htm↩
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