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United Way’s new social enterprise program giving people a chance

Enables agencies to offer employment hope

Tristian Kester sands a bench at Yavapai Exceptional Industries in Prescott Thursday, April 5, 2018. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Tristian Kester sands a bench at Yavapai Exceptional Industries in Prescott Thursday, April 5, 2018. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Brad Newman is not afraid to try anything.

His motivation: giving other people a chance.

Tapped as the local king of social enterprise, the executive director of Yavapai Exceptional Industries offered a recent pep talk to four other area nonprofit agencies selected by the United Way of Yavapai County to receive $10,000 grants to start their own social enterprise.

Newman said creating a business or product-sales niche for clients who are not conventional employment candidates can be a challenge. Yet he is equally clear that nothing is more rewarding than enabling people to savor the dignity of doing meaningful work that benefits them and their customers.

For more than four decades, he and his staff at Yavapai Exceptional Industries have been creating business enterprises, and finding job placements, for adults with development disabilities and traumatic brain injuries.

Across the years, YEI has enjoyed success, and failures, with Newman noting the failures often proved a catalyst to the next success, he said. He still laughs about garnering the patent for what was called a “Bag Bike,” a foldable golf cart on bicycle wheels.

When it was first proposed to him, Newman thought, “We’ll make millions.”

Too bad golf courses won’t allow them to be used on their greens, and the contraptions didn’t fit in a car trunk.

“It just bombed,” Newman said with witty candor.

YEI did not come to a screeching halt because of the misstep. Rather, Newman said, he immediately started a search for the next venture, one that continues to this day: construction of quality wood picnic tables, outdoor planters and other custom patio-style furniture.

“I’m always looking for the next big thing,” Newman admits.

Beyond the furniture, YEI clients today work with a full product line of meat spice packets that are shipped all over the globe, they blend birdseed for Jay’s Bird Barn and do assembly work for a variety of area companies, Newman explained. Some of their clients also work in established businesses with job coaches, he said.

The beauty of all these enterprises is that they provide meaningful employment and job training experience to YEI clients and some of the proceeds benefit the agency, said United Way Executive Director Annette Olson.

YEI is a model for other nonprofits seeking to provide job training and employments skills to those who are not conventional candidates, including those with substance abuse issues, mental or physical disabilities, limited education or even criminal backgrounds, Olson said. She asked Newman to share his story with their first grant recipients because he knows what it takes and the difference these ventures can make in a person’s life.

The four inaugural grant recipients are: the Coalition for Compassion and Justice in Prescott, the Launch Pad Teen Center in Prescott, the Yavapai Food Council in Sedona and the Steps to Recovery rehabilitation program in Cottonwood. The programs proposed include a work program for the homeless aimed at reducing panhandling in the area; the sale of dehydrated soups from garden-fresh produce as well as handcrafted soup bowls and cups; recruitment of youth for paid apprenticeships; and an upscale, reused clothing retail boutique.

Through the United Way’s Center for Non-Profit Excellence, Olson said the agency opted to offer this opportunity as a way to bolster workforce development in the county and help non-profit agencies become more sustainable.

In the past, non-profit agencies have leaned toward thrift stores as a way to offer employment and generate some self-sustaining funds, Olson said. But the area is now inundated with such places and so these grants encouraged agencies to think beyond the traditional job market, she said.

As this project unfolds, Olson said there will clearly be some learning curves but she hopes that it proves promising enough that they are able to expand so that other nonprofits can participate with new and unique ventures.

“We know there are other programs who will qualify,” she said, noting that the United Way’s annual agency fund distribution programs are also available to these agencies. “We are trying to be more responsive to social issues.”

A long-time cheerleader for those who need one the most, Newman did not deny that there are challenges to be faced. Yet he was confident that with solid planning, and a willingness to change and adjust when needed, these agencies can make a big difference in people’s lives.

He advised them to be unafraid to tell their clients’ stories as those go a long way to breaking down barriers.

“Sincere enthusiasm is a very powerful thing,” Newman advised. “You’re all passionate people, and so let that come through and tell those success stories because you all have them.”

Quoting author Kurt Vonnegut, Newman said, “You’re always going to be in the process of becoming who you want to be, so you may as well learn to enjoy it.”

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.