Jennifer L’Heureux and Jen Seifert are in the Nelsonville Emporium, looking over a blueprint for a new social enterprise that combines their entrepreneurial zeal and advocacy work into a business that will provide employment for survivors of trauma with the understanding that it takes much more than a job to succeed.
The project is called New Leaf Marketplace, and the name is appropriate since it will be the next iteration of the Nelsonville Emporium, a business Jennifer L’Heureux started in 2004 and that earned her a 2021 Rural Action Sustainability Award in the Sustainable Business category.
Jennifer grappled with the challenges most small business owners face, including long hours. Her children basically grew up there, roller skating in the back room, learning small business skills, and helping out as needed. She pulls out a photo of her daughter, Tatum, standing on a box in front of a shelf of pottery supplies when she was a 4-year-old. Tatum, now a sophomore at Nelsonville-York High School, spent a recent summer day sweeping the sidewalk in front of the Emporium.
In addition to long hours, one of the biggest challenges Jennifer faced was finding a workforce capable of meeting the needs of a growing business as she expanded and added a full kitchen.
“My minimum-wage workers weren’t set up to be successful,” Jennifer says. “Sometimes they needed a washing machine to clean their clothes or working vehicle or heat in their home – things most of us take for granted. Having these things will make you a better worker, and I tried connecting them with people and programs that could help.”
When the pandemic hit, forcing the Emporium to reduce operations, lay off its staff of 12 and rely on Jennifer and her family to keep things running, she continued mulling over that workforce problem. That’s when she began discussions with Jen Seifert, Director of the Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program (SAOP), which works to empower survivors of sexual violence, domestic violence and stalking in seven Southeast Ohio counties, including Athens.
Inspired by a model from Thistle Farms in Nashville, the two women are laying the groundwork for New Leaf Justice Enterprises. The program will have three primary components.
- Free housing for two years that gives residents autonomy. They might share the home with others, but there will be no authority figure in the home.
- Community connections that provide employment coaching, transportation, child care, and help with other services that create stability. “When someone shows up for work, there are so many things that have to be stable for them to be a successful employee,” says Jen Seifert. “Supportive services provide that foundation and provide the foundation to be successful in the workplace.”
- Living wage employment and/or workforce development services.
Like a pair of caped crusaders, the duo has teamed up to use their superpowers for good, with Jen Seifert deploying her knack for administrative and back-end work while Jennifer L’Heureux unleashes her small-business savvy and community activism on the project. There still is a lot of work to do, but New Leaf is getting closer to reality every day.
“Our logo for SAOP [the parent nonprofit] is a tree,” notes Jen Seifert. “It represents regrowth, stability, and change, and that you can change and still be stable. The name for the social enterprise was born out of the fusion of the cultural metaphor of turning over a new leaf and our logo. It also is a wonderful way to think about this program as an extension of our nonprofit. Experiencing trauma is like being uprooted and cut loose from support networks. Our crisis intervention program works to replant survivors, and New Leaf is an intensive intervention that restores survivors’ roots so they can regrow connections and thrive.”
To support this effort, donate to the New Leaf Marketplace-Nelsonville fundraiser. Shirts and sweatshirts also are available featuring the Emporium logo on the front and New Leaf on the back. All sizes are available until they run out. Shirts cost $25 (Caribbean Blue, Autumn Orange, Black); sweatshirts are $45 and available in gray. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to order.
(This is part of a series of stories highlighting the winners of Rural Action’s 2021 Sustainability Awards. Learn how your neighbors are making our little corner of Appalachia an even better place.)