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Save a Kid, Save a Community

Elaine Labalme
May30/ 2011

High school senior JaCeka McElligott divides her time between school, which includes college courses at CCAC, and The Youth Enterprise Zone. She has been a member of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western PA since ninth grade, hopes to be an archaeologist one day, and will enroll at Carlow University in the fall.  Until then, she’s working retail at the store in the Zone and behind the counter at the cafe, gaining valuable entrepreneurial experience as she helps with the books, too, as if she–and all the other students employed there– was part owner of the place.

And that’s the whole idea.

The Stanton Heights resident is poised, enthusiastic and finds her time at the Zone rewarding.  “I work both sides, retail and cafe.  I do customer service, display, poster press, everything.  We’re all cross-trained.”

The Boys and Girls Club’s Youth Enterprise Zone was created ten years ago to focus on entrepreneurial training and leadership skills, allowing teens to work in a number of social venture businesses.  “The Zone,” a mini-mall hub opened in September 2010, is an 8,500 sq. ft. shopping/dining space on the first floor of a newly-constructed, LEED Silver-certified building along Butler Street in Lawrenceville.

Developed with considerable input from the kids at Club-operated Career Connections Charter High School, who attend workforce development classes on the second floor, The Zone is grooming twenty hand-picked students and will ultimately engage close to 200 teens.  “Will they grow up to be entrepreneurs?” asks Mike Hepler, President and CEO of the local Boys and Girls Club.  “Probably not.  But they will have a skill set they can use.”

A retail store occupies the right half of the building’s main floor while a spacious cafe fills out the other side.  Adhering to a philosophy of minimal risk, minimum inventory and maximum profit, the store is separated into discrete shopping areas with plenty of aisle space.  Stylish sunglasses line one wall while a tall rounder is filled with fashion watches that shimmer and shine.  Good-looking silk ties are priced at $12.99 and high-quality Melissa and Doug toys sell for about half of what you’d pay at a big box emporium.  One display case features the fused glass jewelry of Sue Kalich, a Club employee whose pendants, rings and bracelets belong in a downtown gallery.

The merchandise mix can be summed up as appealing to teens with plenty of practical buys for parents (housewares, notions, plastic cups/dishes for a colorful summer cookout).  Product lines are sourced from quality discounters that insure a substantial return (as much as 200% on some lines) and 25% of the merchandise is donated.  Margins, on average, run 20-25%.

The cafe also has its eye on the bottom line.  Kraft donated the core product line while Unilever donated its Breyers ice cream stand.  Consequently, there are no franchise fees or royalty payments.  Wi-fi is free to customers and First Commonwealth Bank is about to deliver an ATM machine.  Point-of-sale terminals are high-tech and track inventory while driving business decisions.  “We’re holding our own right now,” continues Hepler.  “The kicker will be this summer.  We’re just starting to get the word out to the community.”

It’s easy to see why Hepler is so committed to these kids. He was once one of them.  As a child on the streets of McKees Rocks in the late 1950s, “I was in a single-parent family and it was a tough environment.  The Club pulled me in and by 1966, I was Youth of the Year in Pittsburgh.  After I got back from Vietnam, I made a promise to pay back the guy who helped me out in Pittsburgh.”  Hepler proceeded to get his B.A. from Robert Morris University and the martial arts black belt has been CEO of the regional Boys and Girls Clubs since 1989.

Funding for The Zone was spearheaded by Sen. Jim Ferlo, who loosened up $1.2 million from the state.  The Richard King Mellon Foundation chipped in another $990,000 and several other donors combined for the $2.7 million project cost.  A nascent flea market where kids can develop and sell their wares will by operational by summertime and a poster press business in the back of the store will soon spin off a t-shirt silk screening component.  “When a customer makes a purchase at The Zone, they’re supporting programs for youth all over the city,” notes Hepler.

Student John Karl’s shy demeanor takes a marked shift when he starts talking about his own product line:  belts, wallets, even bouquets made of…duct tape!  The flowers come in a variety of colors (duct tape is no longer just silver) and “they’ll never wilt, die or need water,” according to their creator.  The duct tape wallets are a marvel of form and function and a camo-colored belt is both stylish and sturdy.  Despite his obvious talents, the youngster pitches in wherever needed, doing mostly retail but also mopping up at the end of the day and putting food away.

“I’ve been coming to the Club since I was eight years old,” says Karl, a resident of Lawrenceville.  “It was always a nice place to hang out.  Now I’m learning how to run a business and I like that.  I’m a bit of an entrepreneur myself.”

The smile on Mike Hepler’s face is hard-earned and he knows not every kid will fare as well as John Karl.  That said, there’s no quit.  “These are good kids.  We’re pullin’ ’em this way but the streets are pullin’ ’em that way.  We’re gonna win.”

New Girl In Town Elaine Labalme sees the future in the eyes of her nine-year-old every morning.  Email her here.

Captions: JaCeka McElligott; (l to r) Karen Hudek, Erika Jones, JaCeka McElligott, Shawn Riley, Mike Hepler, Rashad Simpson, Mariah Hill; Mike Hepler.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

Elaine Labalme