It's holiday crunch time, and in a out-of-the-way workshop a merry helpers are hard at work stitching journals and stamping the covers of holiday cards for the busiest season on record.
This isn't the North Pole; it's Skid Row — South San Pedro Street, at the Downtown Women Center's eastern outpost. Here, homeless and formerly homeless women are taking part in one of the dozens of craft workshops that produce their "MADE" line of gift goods.
The small arts room is segmented into stations for paper cutting and hole-puncturing, block-printing and glue-spraying. At least one or two women occupy each area, quietly at work.
Marina Rodriguez, 52, is hunched over a translucent ruler, demonstrating how to trim a greeting card. She carefully lines up the notches with the card stock to keep her cut even, then slowly traces an edge with an Xacto Knife.
"It has to be perfect," she says, adding with a smile, "People really like these."
The attention to detail has paid off. Though the gifts are made year-round, the holidays tend to be the busy season. And this year — with more orders arriving from outlets like Bloomingdales in Century City and Hudson News at LAX, as well as sales booming at the center's cafe retail store — sales are set to eclipse past years.
"We are kind of at the peak or crunch time, and it's about to pass," says Product and Merchandise Sr. Manager Dena Younkin. "We definitely increased from last year and the year before."
Younkin estimates that by the end of the season, sales will have doubled.
The Downtown Women Center's program director, Amy Turk, is a little more conservative. She says sales have increased about 10 percent each year, "which we think is great for a business, for a start-up business in particular," she says. "We're very pleased with ourselves this year."
But even that growth pales in comparison to the gains the program has made in the lives of many of the women who take part.
A community, An outlet, a way back to work
The MADE program was launched four years ago, when the DWC moved into a new building — one that had a storefront. Some on the center's staff saw an opportunity to expand their job training efforts.
"We heard loud and clear that people wanted to work, but didn't feel like there were work opportunities in the community," says Turk. "And then we said 'Well, what kind of work would you want to do?'"
The result: A work training program that operated as a kind of drop-in skill-share. Women can sign up for classes and learn crafts like machine sewing and block-printing. More importantly, those enrolled in the workshops can earn a little extra pocket money and have a place to go during the day.
"As you can imagine, sitting around and doing these activities together, making these products, allows for time to get to know people and to start to support people in a different way and to build up the social skills that might be needed," Turk says.
The center holds several free craft workshops throughout the week. They range from soap and candle creation, to journal-making, stitching and block-printing. Each is taught by a volunteer and is open to women who live at the center, as well as to those who just drop in for the day. About 150 women take part in the DWC's craft programs, says Turk.
"Once one of the women has demonstrated that they can make a saleable product, which usually doesn't take long at all," she says, "they're paid per item that they make." The amount depends on the item, she says, but it's roughly commensurate to the minimum wage.
Some, like longtime MADE participant Gloria McKinney have gone through the whole lot. She says her interest in books lead her to the program.
"I love books, and I wanted to learn how to refurbish them — to keep from just tossing them when they get old or damaged or whatever," she says. "That's what started me."
Soon after, she found herself hand-sewing Christmas tree ornaments, then bags, earrings, jewelry, knitting, coffee cozys, soaps. "I've gone through all the programs," McKinney says.
"For some people, they look at it as a job. For me it's a hobby," she says, adding pointedly. "I have gotten a job through DWC, though — going through their work training program."
McKinney says she was living at the Union Rescue Mission down the street when she first started attending the workshops. Now, four years later, she's living in an apartment not far away. She says she got help with her resume, received some job training and a new set of donated work clothes, and went on an interview that she heard about through the center.
"I had on a great outfit. A perfect resume. And I'm thinking, 'I got this,'" she said.
She got the gig.
The craft workshops offer a kind of stepping-stone, Turk says, to other programs the DWC offers, and to getting back into the workforce. Those programs include resume and interview workshops, as well as hands-on barista training at the center's cafe, and cashier and retail training at their store on South Los Angeles Street.
In all, Turk says 42 women went from the DWC's programs back into the workforce in 2014.
For others, the workshops are more an opportunity to work off a little creative steam, and to meet with friends.
"I really love the women here. They help me a lot," says Rodriguez. "This also helps me to have something to do, so where I'm not just stagnant at home. [It] helps me be creative with my art."
Magdalena Tran, who says she suffers from bouts of anxiety, says the crafts help her keep calm. She now lives at the center, in the housing above the art room.
"Every single time I have the opportunity to come down, I come," she says.
Managing demand while Building a brand
MADE's success has provided an opportunity to teach more advanced business skills, says Younkin, such as the concept of brand identity.
"We've gotten to a point where it's really important that our consumer knows what they're getting," Younkin says. She uses the example of the tree ornaments. "The cat is always smiling. We don't sell frowning cats," she says. "Sometimes the artist may decide that they want to make a frowny cat for whatever reason..."
Those cases she says, offer teachable moments. "And that's part of our skill-building. It's part of our training," she says.
With business booming, Younkin says the program's next challenge is in balancing the MADE brand's growth with the center's mission.
"Our number one priority is to meet the needs of the women we're serving," she says. "It's great when we have giant orders, but if we can't fulfill that demand, we won't."
Program director Amy Turk suggests it might be time to move from handmade to machine made goods, if orders continue to soar.
"Every situation's different," Younkin says. "Just like the ladies here all have a different story, I think every circumstance that comes to us is different, and we have to weigh that every time."