While browsing the candle section at Whole Foods, pick up a Bright Endeavors candle and flip it over. On the bottom label of each candle is the name of the young mother who made it.
Bright Endeavors, the New Moms 16-week paid job training program, provides young mothers in need with the skills necessary to find gainful employment, while doubling as a social enterprise candle company.
“An interesting thing about social enterprises is that it’s a very broad spectrum,” said Sarah-Jayne Ashenhurst, New Moms social enterprise director. “Some don’t operate with the job training force as an actual labor force, as we do.”
Targeting mothers between 16 and 24 years in age, the mothers in Bright Endeavors are given the title of production assistant and split their time between manufacturing beautiful candles and attending professional skills workshops. The moms get paid for both. New Moms is based in Oak Park and in Austin while the production facility is located in Garfield Park.
“The moms are here on the production floor Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” Ashenhurst said. “They have a half an hour in the morning and a half an hour in the afternoon where they’re working on professional skills, not specifically on-the-job skills.”
Mondays and Fridays, production assistants receive more professional development training, such as peer coaching and participating in mock job interviews.
“Part of why our schedule works the way it does is it allows our moms to be here and get the job skills they need without having to sacrifice being able to be an active parent,” she said.
On the production floor, the moms carefully pour soy wax, mix scents, attach labels, conduct quality checks and pack and ship candles out.
“We have to be able to fulfill the volume of orders that any small business would need to fulfill, but in a really concentrated timeline, basically three short shifts a week,” Ashenhurst said.
In addition to being sold at midwestern Whole Foods locations, the candles are also sold in a variety of independent local retailers, gift shops and fair-trade boutiques. They can also be purchased on the Bright Endeavors website. CB2 also sells Bright Endeavors candles under its private label brand.
Production assistants are split into teams and handle a sector of the candle making operation. Those further along in the program may receive the honorary position of becoming a team lead. Team leads wear red aprons, while regular production assistants wear black.
“They have earned that title based on their performance and knowledge of the department they’re in, but also they showed up and showed out and took this training experience to another level,” said Cathy Robinson-Yates, Bright Endeavors production and training specialist.
Team leads make sure their teams run smoothly and carry out their duties well.
“Everybody has a beautiful time,” Robinson-Yates said. “We’re more like a sisterhood here. It’s really hard to get the moms to move on, but you know the training wheels must come off.”
The primary goal of Bright Endeavors is to have each production assistant find employment upon completing the program. When a production assistant finds a job, she rings the bell on the wall of the manufacturing facility.
“It is so fun. You can be doing whatever and you hear that bell, you just have to stop. Someone got a job; it’s so exciting,” Robinson-Yates said.
After ringing the bell, the mom writes her name on the wall, along with the name of her employer, the date she got her job and a meaningful quote.
“They’re kind of leaving their legacy, but also giving the other moms some inspiration,” Robinson-Yates said.
Due to the brevity of the program, New Moms and Bright Endeavors relies on a training tool called executive skills. Each cohort and New Moms staffer take a survey that identifies the skills that come naturally to them and those that don’t. The knowledge is made public, so that everyone knows how to interact better with each other.
“It’s nonjudgmental coaching,” said Robinson-Yates. “It helps us to best understand them. It helps them to best understand us.”
And it also helps everyone best understand themselves.
The executive skills coaching, combined with the classroom workshops and on-the-job training, works too. The job retention rate of young mothers who have completed the program is 85 percent.
Terrah’ Davis, team lead of the finishing department, has one week left with Bright Endeavors but already has a job lined up. Upon completion, she will begin her job working as a guest services representative at the United Center.
She’s excited to start her new career path but is sad to leave.
“It’s been great. Being a production assistant to a team lead, it’s been awesome. Working on these candles, it’s bettered me as a person and as a young mom,” Davis said.
Davis found out about the program toward the end of her pregnancy while she was at Rush Oak Park. Her doula, who works at New Moms in Oak Park, recommended she apply.
She has dreams of becoming a mortician and once her 5-month-old baby turns one, Davis plans on going back to school.
She had yet to tell Robinson-Yates she had gotten the United Center job and ring the bell.
“Oh my god! Are you serious?” Robinson-Yates said, giving Davis a hug.
Making sure she was set up for a good start to her new career, Robinson-Yates immediately launched into questions about Davis’s start date.
“Let’s verify with your employment coach. Let’s verify that this is a good fit for you. I’m so proud of you,” Robinson-Yates said. “Congratulations! I can’t wait for you to ring the bell. Good job!”
Shipping team lead Ricarda Miller found out about the program online “I took a leap of faith and just called and they ended up calling me back with a date for an interview,” she said.
Miller would definitely recommend New Moms to young mothers in need of support, saying “They give us a lot of support and they really try to assure us that you can be a mom, you can work, you can still go to school.”
Bright Endeavors staff helped Miller believe in herself.
“They basically helped me see things in myself that I didn’t even see,” she said. Miller has a four-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter.
Like Davis, Miller is about one week away from the end of her Bright Endeavors tenure. After she finishes the program, she’s going to get her GED and then start college at Malcom X to become an ultrasound technician.
“It’s bittersweet, but, at the same time, it’s not because they stick with us two years after the program to make sure that we’re still on the right path,” Miller said. “It’s bittersweet but it’s not completely the end for our relationships with each other.”
Natarah Grisby, team lead of wax pouring, agrees that it will be bittersweet to say farewell, especially because she loves the women with whom she works.
“If this were a permanent job, I would stay here,” Grisby said. “I hate that it’s only 16 weeks because you come into the program and you get to love working here.”
She grew to love making candles and hopes to start her own small candle making business using what she learned at Bright Endeavors, after going back to finish college.
“Candle making – you’d think that was boring. Honestly, I love it,” Grisby said. “Candles lighten up your spirit. They make you feel at home.”
She hopes the candles bring something special to the people who buy them.
“I don’t know the people buying the candles, but I know I made them, and I made them with warmth and love,” she said. “I feel like, when they light it, they’re receiving my warmth and love.”
Grisby said it’s hard to work and have an infant son at home, but she does it for him and his future.
“I miss him,” she said. “This is all for him. To make sure he goes to college. I have to be successful so he can be successful.”
She hopes other young mothers in difficult situations find New Moms.
“If there are any young mothers who are in shelters, are homeless, who can’t find a job, who need any type of help – reach out to New Moms,” Grisby said. “Whatever you need, I guarantee they can help you with it.”
Grisby also encourages those moms to apply for Bright Endeavors.
“I promise you, you’ll love it,” she said. “All of the things they teach you here and what you learn here, will help you for a career, not just a job.”