Little Jars Lead to Big Ideas
The Social Enterprise Department at Project HOME is cooking up more than just cranberry sauce. Led by Scarlett McCahill, the department is working on turning one good idea into many.
Three years ago, Project HOME’s Executive Director, Sister Mary Scullion, wondered if she could use a family recipe to create some seasonal employment. Along with her assistant, Mary Anne Anderson, four residents, and a family friend, she cooked the first small batches of her “Sinfully Delicious” cranberry sauce. In giving it away and asking people what they thought of the sauce, “They did some really informal product research, accidentally,” says McCahill, the manager of the Social Enterprise Department. The sauce received good reviews and generated some healthy buzz in favor of creating more infrastructure for job training.
Project HOME’ Social Enterprise Department was created last year to help its residents gain job skills while earning a wage. Last year, ten residents worked to produce three thousand 11-ounce jars of cranberry sauce to be sold during the 2013 holiday season. In what McCahill refers to as “enriched employment,” each resident worker was connected with an Employment Services case manager to help them in their own job searches. Residents were also connected with Project HOME health and wellness services. Three residents went on to find jobs in food and retail.
This year’s batch of resident employees included Mikal Cage, Richard Gessner, and Ty Williams. Cage, whose family lives in Florida, is saving the money he has made on the production line to pay them a visit this winter. Gessner, a new resident, said that he feels more confident in his search for employment since he has had a steady job for the last two months. Williams, a recent college graduate, has been looking for a position in the behavioral health field. When he was approached by a Project HOME employee to be a part of the cranberry sauce project, he said, “It couldn’t have come at a better time.” Before his last food handler shift, Williams learned he had been hired at Horizon House as a Certified Peer Specialist, providing support to other people with mental illness.
Not all residents came away from making cranberry sauce with the same experience. After trying their hand at food services, several residents decided they did not want work in that field. “That’s valuable as well,” said McCahill. “Once they’re in their own job search, they’re not going to waste their time with something that really doesn’t suit them.”
Because not every job fits every resident, the Social Enterprise Department has varied opportunities for employment. The department operates the HOME Page Cafe inside the Parkway Central branch of the Free Library. The Cafe, which started in 2008, employs four formerly homeless men and women and serves more than 150 customers a day. At another site, residents make HOME Made soaps, candles, and greeting cards, which are sold on Project HOME’s website, along with Project HOME apparel. The website also features artists from within the community, whose works can be purchased. HOME Spun Resale Boutique at 1523 Fairmount Avenue sells gently used clothing; three resident employees keep an eye out to make sure that only the most stylish donations hang on the rack.
While offering many types of employment training opportunities, the Social Enterprise Department is still adapting to meet the needs of residents and the job market. So far, it has played off the strengths of a city with a large hospitality industry. But training residents to work in a world of not only food, but also alcohol, gives McCahill and others at Project HOME pause. Many of its formerly homeless residents are in recovery programs. While McCahill acknowledged that certainly not every trainee in recovery is the same, she also said, “Working in food and beverage can be a really tough setting to maintain a sober lifestyle.” Factors like work hours at odd times of the day and colleagues with different attitudes toward drinking are weighed against the value of employment training that could just as easily lead to landing a job at an alcohol-free breakfast and lunch spot that offers regular hours and supportive atmosphere.
The Social Enterprise Department has encountered another challenge, due to its success: growth.
Sue Darr, a volunteer chef, estimated that she and the rest of the team will cook, can, and label 4,400 jars this year. This is possible through a generous donation of frozen berries from Clement Pappas & Co, Inc, a wholesaler in South Jersey, Project HOME has purchased an additional supply. With the cranberry sauce business showing no signs of slowing, Project HOME is considering adding to the 2 current resident jobs in cranberry sauce sales. One idea she is incubating involves training up a unique, sauce-oriented sales force.
“That’s a totally different type of job training,” she said, “but that’s absolutely relevant in both the food and drink industry, and obviously transferrable to lots of other industries.”
The ideas don’t stop with sales training. The Social Enterprise Department is dedicated to looking at Philadelphia’s job market and anticipating the next industries. While McCahill has a lot of momentum and ideas of her own, she is working with Project HOME’s workforce development team, staff at the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Development Labs, as well as expert partners throughout the region.
McCahill said that the team is working to answer the question: “Where is there a gap in the workforce in this region where an employer and the public at large would not care at all about a person’s history of homelessness or addiction, or any other marginalization?” Right now, the range of ideas they are entertaining include technology and the repair of specialized equipment on warehouse loading bays.
McCahill is optimistic about turning a profit for Project HOME through the social enterprise portfolio. She sees the day where Project HOME’s ventures not only help place its residents into growing employment sectors, but generate funds for the agency’s ongoing mission. The turning point will come when consumers who are less familiar with Project HOME realize that proceeds for their favorite brand of cranberry sauce go toward ending homelessness.
On Tuesday, October 28, and Thursday, October 30, Executive Chef Rich Pepino and students from Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sports Management helped Project HOME residents finish preparing this year’s batch of Sister Mary’s “Sinfully Delicious” Cranberry Sauce.
Cranberry sauce and additional holiday products are available for sale
Project HOME’s HOME Shop