Chicago business leader and educator Mireya Fouche has been a longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness. After all, she experienced it herself after college in Los Angeles. Since then, she’s been on a mission to end homelessness. She works with underserved youth to empower them to monetize their own stories through art.
In 2010, she founded One Heart One Soul. It’s a traveling arts program providing workshops and entrepreneurial platforms to youth in shelters. The program allows them to exhibit their artwork, sell it and keep the money from their sales. One Heart has been providing art supplies, clothes, food and more assistance to youth experiencing homelessness not only in Chicago but also in Los Angeles and New York.
When Fouche saw the pandemic slashing jobs, she helped create a new partnership for youth experiencing homeless. An education pilot program, the goal of the partnership is to prepare youth for when the job markets reopen. This will give them a leg up in employment sustainability for their future.
One Heart One Soul is partnering with Monarch Thrift Shop, a clothing boutique Fouche also started that donates money to programs to help vulnerable populations. Together, the nonprofits aim to provide needed employment opportunities in the retail industry for youth through the National Retail Foundation’s Rise up program, a nationally accredited educational program.
“This needs to happen now because people are already being fired,” Fouche said.
The retail industry has greatly suffered amid the pandemic.
April and March saw sales drop drastically and millions have been laid off. There were 1.9 million store-based retail workers unemployed., 1.1 million of those classified as temporary layoffs, such as furloughs in June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fouche said even though she doesn’t want to think about the worst, she’s preparing for it.
“Come winter season, we want to ensure we have a program that is solid enough that would give our youth an opportunity to compete in the market that everybody is pretty much reentering into,” she said.
With a combined 15 years of impactful experience, Fouche said the social enterprise partnership will provide employment training, nationally recognized certificates, tangible resources and vast opportunities to help youth through their season of hardship and hopefully end the cycle of youth homelessness.
Students will learn about retail fundamentals, customer service and sales and the business side of things like operations, e-commerce and profit. They will also get tailored experience from Fouche and Fred Brown III, the course instructor and the Relationship Manager and Sales Solutions for LinkedIn. He will help students set up a professional LinkedIn profile, create professional relationships and see how customer service works.
Brown, who is also a board member of One Heart One Soul, said he is excited to give youth a chance to gain these important skills and find their way in the retail world, just like he did when he got his first job at Blockbuster in Pittsburgh when in college in the mid-2000s. There, he gained skills in retail, customer service, business operations, management practices and financial services.
“Those core basics I learned while working there have really shaped my career,” Brown said. “It’s helped me to realize skills like that are vital. They are very transferable, and exposing more individuals to those opportunities can help in such a massive way.”
Starting the third week of September, the first cohort will be just two or three students aged 17 to 23. Students will take the six-week program in Monarch’s retail space when the shop is closed.
Brown said he hopes that number will grow as the program solidifies. But for now, they are starting small to ensure proper COVID-19 precautions are in place. They also want to ensure the program is inclusive to work with student availability and specific needs. Youth who want to participate do not need a high school diploma or college degree, he said.
Once they complete the course and pass the test, Brown said youth will receive a nationally accredited certification. This will enable them to fast-track to about 150 large retail companies such as Home Depot, Macy’s and Nordstroms.
“[We want to] give them the opportunity to not only have the accreditation on their records but actually take it and do something with it,” he said. “They have a chance to go out into the field and find employment.”
But the partnership program is not just about experience and skills, Fouche said.
For many youth experiencing homelessness, it’s difficult to get a job. They don’t have a resume, adequate transportation, an online portfolio or the proper business attire. The new partnership seeks to remove these barriers. It will provide computer access, clothes from the boutique, hands-on training to create a resume and a LinkedIn page. In addition, youth will receive simple yet important amenities like food, transportation and access to showers to be interview ready. She said she even added inspiring words on the bathroom walls to bring positivity to the youth.
To help meet these ends, One Heart One Soul created a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise funds to support youth in the program with bus cards, meals, personal protection equipment to avoid contracting coronavirus, more computers and program training costs. Fouche said each student will also get toiletry bags and art supply kits. The fundraiser has raised over $300 of its $8,000 goal.
Although the pilot program is still in its infancy, Brown said he wants to see it expand in Chicago. The plan is to partner with other businesses to help end the cycle of youth homelessness.
“Giving our youth a leg up is such a big opportunity and such a big focus of One Heart One Soul,” he said. “Someone took a chance on me when I was a kid. I want to make sure we do the same for them.”