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Homeless Youth Employed by TumbleTees Earn Cash, Learn Life Skills

Published: Saturday, April 14, 2012

Updated: Sunday, April 15, 2012 13:04

Tumble Tees

Ryan A. Ruiz

Employee work at Tumble Tees, a business establish by Tempe's Tumbleweed resource center to help clients get back into the working world and learn job skills.

A Phoenix screen-printing business is providing the city’s homeless youth with an opportunity to earn money, learn business skills and express creativity in an effort to transition them into a self-sufficient lifestyle.

TumbleTees is a T-shirt screen-printing business located in downtown Phoenix. The store is connected to Tumbleweed, a center for youth development that serves abused, abandoned, troubled and neglected youth in the community, and employs homeless youth ages 25 and younger.

“The kids want to work; they’re excited about it,” said Emily Blanche, who has been a TumbleTees coordinator since 2010.

She said all of the employed youth went through the normal steps of getting a job — filling out an application, being interviewed, verified and approved. They are also on a case management plan with the Tumbleweed resource center to meet their employment goals.

“It’s set up as a vocational training program,” Blanche said.  “At 60 hours they graduate and get a certificate, and then we bring them back on call if that’s something that works out for them and us.” 

The reasons that youth want to work in the screen-printing shop vary from trying to earn money to get home to paying for prescriptions or tickets, Blanche said.

“It would be just a quick, couple of days to earn that money and get them to the next step,” she said. 

The main reason most of the youth are at TumbleTees is to improve work ethic and learn “new skills that they can take to the next job,” Blanche said. “Also, we’re giving them a job reference and it pays minimum wage, so they get paid cash at the end of the day. It’s safe, good money that they’ve earned.”

The idea and screen-printing equipment came from Steven Serrano, the program director at Tumbleweed. He saw the need for providing work for the kids and their potential and started the business in 2009.  

“He had just stumbled across a bunch of screen-printing equipment at a yard sale,” Blanche said. “The kids were just so grateful to have a job since the economy is bad enough as it is and this situation that they’re in temporarily,” she said.

One such youth is Mike Young, a soft-spoken 21-year-old who has been at Tumbleweed for four months and working at TumbleTees for almost half that time.

“I started over there, next door at the Tumbleweed program, then came over here,” Young said. “I come in here and I have different orders usually every day. I do a lot of different orders every day.” 

“I didn’t even know how to do it at first. It’s pretty easy, though,” Young said while making his way to the screen-printing device. “You put a shirt on here, put the screen down, roll the ink over the image, then it goes on the shirt. It’s pretty cool.” 

He said the largest order he has worked on was for Magellan, a behavioral health services program. The order was for 1,500 shirts for an event, which Young said his girlfriend attended.

Young said his favorite part of the experience has been making new friends and learning new skills.

“It’s always good to learn new stuff,” he added. “I would get a job doing it.”

Blanche said the most rewarding part of her job is seeing an employee go from being nervous on his or her first day to having cash in-hand after creating something tangible at the end of the shift.

“It’s exciting to see their self-esteem raised,” she said.

The average age of employees has been about 21 and a few of them have gone on to work in other screen-printing shops, Blanche said.

“I always tell everyone that works here that, you know, if you’re really drawn to screen-printing then that’s great, but you’re not just limited to that by working here,” Blanche said, listing alternatives such as customer service, inventory, quality control and writing invoices. “I think that a lot of the skills that you learn here you can take to any other job. But a lot of them have gotten jobs afterwards or even just started to save up money to get into housing as well.”

Blanche began working at TumbleTees after earning a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Arizona State University. She said she wants to get a master’s in counseling and psychology, which will bring her “full circle.”

The employees at TumbleTees have created shirts for various programs at ASU and nonprofit organizations, churches, life skills centers, Girl Scouts, the YMCA and they have an upcoming order from Living Green Arizona.

“We actually at this moment are having to turn business away because we’re so booked,” she said. “It’s exciting.”


TumbleTees,1641 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix, Monday to Friday,10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit for more information.

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