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Learning to earn

Mon., Oct. 23, 2006

Twelve-year-old Tyler McKeen, says he knows his mom is struggling just to make ends meet. So he doesn’t hound her to buy him things.

But that doesn’t mean that McKeen, the oldest of four children and a seventh-grader at Spokane’s Glover Middle School, has to do without. He’s one of 10 middle-school students attending an after-school program at the downtown YWCA that gives him a way to make a little money of his own.

Dubbed BUBBLES – Building An Understanding of Basic Business, Life and Educational Skills – the program is geared toward kids who either live in homeless shelters or are “doubled up,” living with another family because they don’t have homes of their own.

They meet at the YWCA on Mondays and Tuesdays from about 5 to 8 p.m.

First they share a quick dinner and then do their homework, getting help from tutors if necessary. But the heart of the program is making and selling hand-crafted soaps.

The young entrepreneurs turn out between 30 and 50 bars of soap each week, said Laura Calkins, a YWCA youth activities education specialist who helps oversee the hands-on activities of BUBBLES.

Money earned from selling the soap is shared among the students, who get to direct their money into two pots: needs and wants. Calkins sits down with each child to talk about the things that fit in those categories.

“They say they need things like shoes, jeans, clothes and the girls list make-up,” Calkins said during a recent interview. “The wants include pets, bikes, skateboards, I-Pod shuffles and stereos.”

Most of their earnings go to meet their needs. What’s left may be used for little luxuries, Calkins said.

“We didn’t want them to have to save every dime they make for a pair of shoes,” she explained. “So we try to help them. So if they want a bike or something we can help them get that, too.”

Once they’ve accumulated enough money to buy what they need, they receive gift cards, or sometimes Calkins will take them shopping.

On a recent Monday evening, the kids swarmed into the ‘Y’s” commercial-sized kitchen, lined up behind the burners of a 5-foot-long stove-top and began melting raw soap ingredients in double boilers.

They added fragrances, dyes and special ingredients like berries and oatmeal.

“Ouch, ouch, ouch! Don’t spill it on me,” joked 14-year-old Dylan Ramirez as Britni Brashers, 14, poured hot liquid soap into the molds he was steadying.

Once the soaps cool, the students wrap them in cellophane, tie on raffia bows and attach the “Made at BUBBLES” labels.

Vanilla oatmeal, patchouli, lavender, mulled apple cider, sleigh ride, Christmas forest and peppermint pumice foot scrub are just a few of their popular products. Bars sell for $1 to $3, depending on size.

Over the summer, the students sold their soap products at farmers’ markets around the region.

Adrian Sherman, 13, proudly announced that he and another boy sold $50 worth of products to just one woman in Tum Tum. Sherman said he’s particularly proud to be earning his own spending money.

“I feel great. I don’t have to ask my mom for anything, so she can pay the rent and get food,” said the seventh-grader from Glover Middle School.

In addition to business and marketing skills, the young entrepreneurs also are learning to get along with others and use appropriate language and behavior.

And they agree it’s nice to spend time with peers who understand and often share their life experiences.

“At school, a lot of people spread rumors, and I don’t really want that to happen to me,” Sherman said. “Here, I don’t have to hold it (my feelings) in.”


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