Building job skills (and birdfeeders) with Shadaria Brown

Her hammer flying, Shadaria Brown taps the ridgepole of a birdfeeder into place. Then she hands the feeder back to the young man for the final touches.

Most days, she’s working with homeless youth in the wood shop she oversees at Elpis Enterprises, a nonprofit bridge program based in the Creative Enterprise Zone.  But tonight she’s at a Lions Club convention in a Bloomington hotel lobby, showing high-schoolers and passersby the satisfaction of using tools to make something by hand, and sharing the task with others. “I like to take nothing and turn it into something,” she says with a grin.

And she's good at it. For her leadership with homeless youth at Elpis, Shadaria will receive a St. Paul Neighborhood Honor Roll award at a ceremony January 26. (That's the same day Elpis hosts a build-a-birdhouse program for kids at the St. Anthony Park library: see "Coming Up in the Zone," below.)

Elpis Enterprises— the name is Greek for "hope"—  is a place where young people 16–23 can turn their lives around. In its woodworking and screen printing studios at 550 Vandalia Tower, young people find social support and a role to fill. “We’re building work readiness,” says executive director Paul Ramsour, who founded the nonprofit in 2002. Yes, young people learn some manual and design skills at Elpis. But more important, they’re learning responsibility and teamwork, confidence and community-outreach skills. They’ll apply those to whatever job or education goals they set for themselves. 

Now 26, Shadaria says she originally pictured going into nursing. But when she got her hands on some woodworking tools as an Elpis intern in 2011, her plans changed. This is what I want to do! she thought. Soon she was on the payroll, and she’s been the woodworking coordinator since 2013. “I’m not sure she knew how to drive a nail when she started here,” said Paul. “But today, anytime we need something put together, we ask Shadaria. Painting, laying carpet squares—she can do it all.” Those are skills she’s likely to use for her future goals: learning carpentry and refurbishing houses. For now, though, her hands are full, running the wood shop and also raising two small children.

Elpis wood products are made from recycled cedar fencing (something from nothing!). Several styles of birdhouses and feeders are available both as kits and fully assembled. Buy them at the Elpis online store or local outlets such as All Seasons Wild Bird Store. The screen printing shop offers full-service custom design and printing for T-shirts, bags, and other textiles, with an online self-design option. 

At Elpis, making and selling practical goods offers young people a reason to give their best in a team setting. "Just because you're homeless doesn't mean you should give up on your future," Shadaria says.

Julie James