'I dream of a future that could exist.'

Young woman from Thorncliffe Park

Poetic in their simplicity, these words speak volumes about hope—about daring to hope—and the sheer possibility of a better life. They are the words of a young person who works at the Phoenix Print Shop, a social purpose enterprise funded by the Toronto Enterprise Fund.

Building better futures

The Toronto Enterprise Fund is a unique partnership among all levels of government and one of United Way Toronto’s special grant initiatives. Its mission is to support social purpose enterprises— revenue generating ventures operated by non-profit organizations—that provide employment opportunities, training and work experience to homeless adults and to homeless, at-risk youth.

There are three kinds of social purpose enterprises: parallel businesses that provide permanent or part-time work to homeless adults; self employment businesses that help participants acquire the skills and knowledge they need to start their own small businesses; and linking businesses, targeted mostly to youth and newcomers, that provide training in a particular industry for up to a year, following which they help participants access the job market to find permanent employment opportunities.

Beating the odds

Of the 11 social purpose enterprises currently funded, there are six linking businesses that employ at-risk youth, including the Phoenix Print Shop and two new enterprises that were established in 2007—Beatz to da Streetz Ventures, a music production and sales company that employs and trains youth; and BlueSky DJ Service that employs and trains young men leaving foster care.

Providing services designed specifically for at-risk youth is a key priority for United Way and these social purpose enterprises offer a highly focused opportunity for some of Toronto’s most vulnerable young people. A large number come from abusive homes, some are the children of newcomers, and more than half receive social assistance. They have not completed high school, have low self-esteem, and most of their lives have been characterized by poverty, violence and social isolation.

Before connecting with a social purpose enterprise, the odds had always been stacked against these youth. Today, however, things are changing. Since inception, 86 per cent of the participants who completed the training and work experience in linking businesses have found full or part-time jobs, started their own businesses or returned to school. Two hundred and twenty one participants are on their way to beating the odds!

And how are Beatz to da Streetz Ventures and BlueSky DJ Service doing? Well, in their first year of business, they’ve been able to place all of their graduates. As has another linking enterprise, the River Restaurant. The Phoenix Print Shop, one of the most successful social purpose enterprises, has instituted an even better work/training model and has been able to land regular printing business from some of the largest organizations in both the private and public sector. Now that goes a very long way towards building confidence and self-esteem.

The Toronto Enterprise Fund has taken on a leadership role in the sector. Since launching the first Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise in 2004, United Way has continued to build momentum for this national movement by publishing our research and contributing our learnings, material, models of enterprise and methodologies to the discussions and activities taking place.

Of the 68 people who participated in an independently conducted series of focus groups in 2007, 82 per cent said that their job skills had improved since working at these enterprises, 74 per cent said their self esteem had gone up, and 60 per cent said their health had improved. To some degree, these social purpose enterprises improved the quality of life of all who participated.

'I dream of a future that could exist.' was a feature story in our quarterly newsletter, Community Matters: Summer 2008.

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