At the newly expanded More Than Words bookstore in the South End, Mehki Jordan, 20, knows exactly which signs he painted. He can name the books he helped organize, the shelves he helped build.
The nonprofit — which helps youth who are in foster care, are homeless, or are court-involved — recently opened in the space that used to house Medieval Manor on East Berkeley Street. Inside, more than 50,000 books fill shelves and a crew of young employees learns how to run a business and other life skills.
“It’s really cool because every single aspect of the business, we had a hand in it,” Jordan said. “So all of this stuff you see, it’s literally, it’s ours, you know?”
More Than Words began in a Waltham basement 14 years ago, soon expanded to the second floor of its current South End building, and now also occupies the 10,500-square-foot first floor. Last year, the organization served 253 young people between the ages of 16 and 24, picked up 2.65 million donated books, and fulfilled 650 online orders per day.
“I resist being pigeonholed as just a job-training program,” said Jodi Rosenbaum, founder and CEO of More Than Words. “Because we are giving jobs and jobs matter and jobs are powerful and that is huge, but we are not just a job-training program. We often say we’re in the ‘mattering’ business, helping young people realize that they matter, helping them reclaim a sense of self.”
Jordan struggled with substance abuse, but he quickly found that working at More Than Words motivated him to stay sober and out of trouble. He arrived at first for the money but found something peaceful in being surrounded by books. He has graduated from the program and continues to work there while he searches for his next job.
“They’re giving me confidence to step up and be that leader I know I can be and just know the potential I do have,” he said.
At More Than Words, there are shelves on wheels that can be moved to create a multipurpose room that can be rented for events. There’s also a quiet study room where they hope to host movie nights and open mics. With windows that run from floor to the ceiling, passersby can see the crew in action, sorting inventory, helping customers.
“I just recently signed up in July,” said Sebastian Lind, 20. “I told myself that I just really need to get up. I need to get up and do something with my life. Instead of somebody else pushing me, I wanted to do it for myself.”
Upstairs and behind the scenes, More Than Words teaches employees skills such as how to manage finances. Participants are required to meet certain goals to continue working, which could be opening a bank account, or applying to college, or studying for the GED.
John Capron, 21, has lived in shelters and has three kids. A friend recruited him to More than Words last summer. He recently moved into his own apartment.
But it hasn’t been easy. Capron said he lost his job twice before graduating from the program. He said his More Than Words youth development manager, Sheila Graham, never gave up on him.
“She was like, ‘Hey, I’m still going to keep e-mailing you, so don’t think we disappeared,’ ” Capron said. “ ‘We’re still in your corner.’ ”
Capron remembers when he and other staffers began imagining what they wanted the new bookstore to look like. They wrote their dreams on Post-It notes during brainstorming sessions.
They helped turn old wooden beams from the ceiling into tables. They spent time at the Brimfield Antique Show, where teams of youth were given a certain amount of money and a list of items. They haggled prices and brought back unique items now on display such as an old piano and a chicken feeder that now displays books.
“It was an experience our youth had [that] they might have never had in their lives,” said Jennifer Herbert, executive vice president and chief operating officer. “Understanding how you can go and get lots of cool things for great prices and then bring them back and learn the skills for how to clean pieces, build them, and put them back together. They’ve been a part of every piece in here.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.