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‘We’re like family’: Despite pandemic, nonprofit continues to serve disadvantaged youths

With retail stores closed, More Than Words continues to sell books online to bring in revenue to support young people.More Than Words

Before the pandemic, More Than Words provided job training and a pay check to vulnerable young people by letting them run the nonprofit’s two bookstores in Boston and Waltham.

The bookshops are currently closed, but More Than Words is pressing on with its mission: to empower and provide resources to youths who are in foster care, are homeless, or are court-involved by helping them take charge of their lives.

“Before COVID we were a busy and noisy place filled with youth earning a paycheck while they learn skills and move their lives forward," said Naomi Parker, the group’s chief advancement officer. "It looks very different now, but our mission and work [have] remained the same.”

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Although youths cannot work on site at the bookstores, More Than Words has still been paying about 120 young people for participating in check-ins, team meetings, and workshops on life skills. The organization also ensures they have resources such as cellphones, laptops, Internet access, food, and mental health support.

More Than Words then pays the youths by correlating pay with participation at workshops and check-ins to provide incentives to stay connected.

“These workshops have been motivating the youth to get up and do something different and learn something about themselves as well,” said donations manager Tania Golden.

The organization’s annual budget is approximately $7 million, half of which is earned through the youth-run businesses, 40 percent from philanthropy, and 12 percent from government sources.

Members of the adult staff are currently holding down the fort at the bookstores through online sales, although many of them have experienced role changes during the pandemic.

Now, many have taken up tasks including delivering food and technology to young people as well as reaching out to ensure that the connection remains in spite of the distance.

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“I feel that this [pandemic] has enhanced our relationships with our youth,” said Golden.

“We’re like family,” she said. “These two stores are more than just storefronts, they’re safe places for these youth.”