For our December spotlight, we spoke with Julee Rachels, CEO and Founder of Heartisans Marketplace, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Longview, Texas.
Heartisans provides underserved women with job-readiness training and essential skills through its Job-Readiness Program, which is funded by sales from the Marketplace and donations. Since opening in 2014, over 100 women have successfully graduated from the program, an accomplishment Rachels is thrilled to be “a small part of.”
Can you tell me a little bit about what you do?
We have a partnership with the Longview Economic Development Corporation and are a prep and test site for the ACT WorkKeys and essential skills. This software provides the opportunity for women in our program to be better employees (teamwork, productivity, time management, employer expectations, and business and interpersonal communications). After the ACT WorkKeys prep and testing, program participants receive a National Career Readiness Certificate and are ready to enter the community workforce. Many of our graduates attend higher education as well.
We also provide community connections to resolve medical, dental, vision, and legal issues. Resolved legal issues, much-needed glasses, the confidence of a new smile, appropriate clothing for the workplace, along with a strong network of women in the community are just a few of the benefits of graduating from the Heartisans job readiness program.
Women are referred to us from throughout our community, including other non-profits, churches, the legal system, families, and friends. Many are living at other nonprofits, completing programs through them (e.g., addiction, domestic violence, etc.), and upon completing their program, they are referred to ours as their first step back toward independence. And while our program is challenging, it is life-changing. We walk alongside them as they discover a career that matches their interests and abilities that will provide for them and their families.
With the addition of our Phase II Aftercare Program, we are building small homes on our property that will provide housing for one to two years as they enter the workforce and higher education and have the opportunity to implement what they have learned in Phase I, the Job Readiness Program. This will provide them with the independence they desire in a community with the continued support and accountability they need, along with life skill classes and continued counseling.
How do you fund the program?
Sales of products through our retail store provides about two-thirds of our needed funding with community donations providing the rest. A year ago, we purchased and renovated the property where we are now. This new location provides the space needed for our job readiness and aftercare programs, retail store, manufacturing studios, and future housing.
Heartisans is operated by 160+ weekly volunteers from the community and five employees. The first three years, we were 100% volunteer-based, hiring our program director in the fourth year, a volunteer coordinator in the fifth year, and an operations manager and sewing/quilting studio lead in the sixth year. Now, in the beginning of our eighth year, we just hired our fifth employee, our assistant program director who will transition into our aftercare director.
We produce many of the products we sell in our retail store through our volunteer labor. Manufacturing studios include sewing/quilting, embroidery/monogramming, vinyl personalization, letterpress printing, handwork, and our manufacturing kitchen where we produce our natural health and beauty products, food and beverage mixes, ready-to-eat snacks, candles, and natural home cleaning products. We also source products from companies through the Dallas market to provide a large variety of gift offerings. We also have an online store and offer corporate gift boxes that we ship throughout the United States that include a lot of the products we make.
What made you decide to start Heartisans Marketplace?
In the summer of 2013, a friend invited me to volunteer through a nonprofit in our community in a low-income apartment complex. That summer, for 12 weeks, I worked with 21 women providing healthy cooking classes, exercise, and Bible study, just kind of getting to know them. Many of these women expressed a desire to move out of these apartments, and my question was Why are you here? What I discovered was they needed more education, jobs, and many were stuck in generational poverty.
At the same time, we were surveying the women at our church about what kind of activities they wanted to participate in and what their needs were. Arts and crafts was at the top of the list! Heartisans became the model of how to meld these two groups of women—one group who wanted to move into meaningful work that would provide a living for them and their family, and one group who loved creating items that could be sold to finance the path to independence.
After obtaining our 501(c)(3) designation and finding our first location, we partnered with the Longview Economic Development Corporation (LEDCO) to facilitate the ACT WorkKeys prep and testing that would provide our program participants with a National Career Readiness Certificate, which many companies in our area required.
What’s your favorite part of running your own nonprofit?
Oh gosh—all the people, probably, and seeing the women in the program achieve their dreams. We get to know so many people in our community who volunteer with us; we’re faith-based and network-based. It’s just an amazing place to volunteer.
Seeing the women that come into the program, where they start, and two months later where they end up is really amazing to see. Some women when they start won’t even look you in the eye, and they lack confidence in their ability to do anything. Then in a few short weeks, they just blossom and realize they really can achieve their dreams because they were created by a God who loves them and their life has purpose. They work so hard, and they can have a different life because of it. It’s really amazing to be a small part of that. It’s life-changing for them and for us as volunteers as well.
What are some of the biggest challenges of running a nonprofit?
Oh, probably funding. Outside of our sales and community donations, we’re really looking at foundation grants that we haven’t tapped into so that we will be able to build the needed on-site housing. We have just begun to explore the foundation opportunities to help make this a reality.
We just received our first grant from the Texas Bar Foundation which provided the funds we needed for an assistant program director. This will allow us to increase our program class size every two and a half months from six to 10 women and provide more needed aftercare classes that will include life skills and continued counseling. To date, we have over 100 program graduates we are still encouraging as they begin careers and attend higher education.
How does Patriot’s Full-Service Payroll help you run your nonprofit?
Well, like I said, for three years we were 100% volunteer-driven, and our Advisory Board approved our first hire, a full-time program director. I was like, Oh my gosh! I do not know what to do about all the paperwork and dealing with all the payroll requirements. I needed something to make sure I was doing everything right.
I heard about Patriot Payroll on the radio and that they take care of everything. I just put in our employee’s information, and they took care of the rest. That’s what drew me to it, hearing it in the commercials. And just the ease of having employees and knowing all the paperwork would be right, and I wouldn’t need to figure it out.
As we continued to add employees, it made it easier and easier to know everything was being done right. That brought peace of mind.
When it comes to your organization, what are you most proud of?
Oh my goodness, just the community I think. Looking back at where we started and where we are now. As a faith-based organization, we see just how God has worked through everything, and our every need has just been met, from our location to each volunteer who is willing to share their gifts and talents at Heartisans. It’s been very exciting to be a part of it.
We know what our next steps need to be as we see the needs of the women we serve, but we don’t take that step until someone walks in with that gift and we go, Oh! now can do that. We have great retention with our volunteers, and minister to them just like with the women in the program. There are very few places where you can have 160 women with no drama. We focus on the mission; so, we don’t have the drama. Everyone just does the part they’ve been gifted to do. It’s a wonderful thing to see and be a part of.
We have such an amazing community as well, and the community has really supported Heartisans’ mission.
I’ve heard from referring nonprofits that the women in their programs can’t wait to come to Heartisans. I’ve seen what coming to Heartisans does for women—their confidence, independence, and excitement for the future.
What words of advice do you have for someone hoping to start their own nonprofit?
Well, I would get some like-minded friends together and share your vision. Having people come together around a common vision gives it life and really helps it come together.
I had a legal background; so, I was able to do the paperwork for 501(c)(3), but it took me several months to complete. In filling out that paperwork, I had to have two other officers; so, I invited two friends over for lunch and shared the vision I had and asked them to join me. I was fortunate they wanted to be involved.
So, maybe find people who have the knowledge in the different areas of the nonprofit you’re going to run into and ask for their input. Form a network of people from your community who will help.
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