Liz Dupont-Diehl / ctnewsjunkie
Britney Brewster, left and Alan MacKenzie, partners in Street Smart Ventures (Liz Dupont-Diehl / ctnewsjunkie)

WEST HAVEN, CT — As Open Studios and “buying local” become more popular, a little-known marketplace, called Work and Learn, has been quietly popping up and gaining traction throughout the state.

The marketplace features 20 or so vendors, displaying and selling their wares at individual tables. They are all entrepreneurs. They have created products — healthy smoothies, jellies, craft art, music, calendars and more — as well as displays and marketing materials.

These vendors are small businesspeople. They are also young adults in the state’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) system.

“A lot of them have missed every opportunity to develop vocational skills and explore careers,” explained Britney Brewster, a partner in Street Smart Ventures (SSV), which coordinates Work and Learn events throughout the state. “What we do is take away any of the barriers to developing a business and show them how.”

The marketplaces, and underlying work teaching business skills, are the brainchild of Alan MacKenzie, founder of SSV. They are offered through 20 DMHAS Young Adult Service (YAS) providers throughout the state as part of a model called YASBIZ, which is included as an addition to traditional clinical and vocational support services. SSV’s YASBIZ model teaches how to plan and create a business. SSV also hosts meetings for staff from all provider agencies to meet and share strategies, and runs the Work and Learn events every two months, where youth come together and showcase and sell their work in different locations around the state. Prizes are awarded for the most sales and other categories.

“We do this because traditional vocational approaches don’t always work for many people with barriers to employment,” MacKenzie said. “We believe being able to work is a fundamental right. Positive work experience is critical to mental health, to self-confidence, and to feelings of control over one’s life.”

Participants are aged 18-28 and have significant barriers to success, such as multiple foster home placements, dual diagnoses, severe mental health issues and often histories of homelessness and childhood trauma.

Participants and agency staff at a Work and Learn marketplace last month were enthusiastic.

Liz Dupont-Diehl / ctnewsjunkie
Crystal Fancher of Wallingford with her table. (Liz Dupont-Diehl / ctnewsjunkie)

“I enjoyed every bit of it,” said Crystal Fancher of Wallingford, who takes part in YASBIZ as part of her programming at Rushford in Meriden. The West Haven fair was her first as a vendor, selling buttons and other artwork, and she said afterwards that she plans to continue taking part.

“I was very happy, and I learned a lot,” she said later. “I’m going to lower my prices, have more buttons and a more varied inventory.”

Agency staff and DMHAS see YASBIZ as a unique resource. “It is very motivating,” said Matthew Puzyck, a program manager with Continuum of Care in Meriden, who was there to support some of his clients. “It gives them a chance to have their own businesses, keeps them active and teaches new skills and a sense of competence.”

“They love this,” said Paul Starybrat of Ability Beyond in Bristol, who was at the event with 17 clients. “It’s all about buy-in, and these activities really motivate people. It gets them out of bed!”

MacKenzie left a corporate career in the late 1990s to create hands-on learning for people typically thought of as “clients.” Early projects included a youth-led newspaper and a boat-building enterprise in Hartford for children in the care of the Department of Children and Families. He founded SSV in 2003. It is not a non-profit; it is entrepreneurial in content and in spirit. Events and activities are designed so that every element empowers and offers the chance to do real work and build skills. About 30 participants help at each event with logistics such as setup, working tables and taking pictures, and they are all paid.

“One of the outcomes we prize the most is that young people are motivated to come here,” said MacKenzie. “We call it an internship. They are learning and making money at the same time.”

The theory behind the model — remove barriers to participation; let young people explore, experience struggle and failure and success, and be paid for their efforts — is effective with many populations. Brewster and MacKenzie hope to expand services to older DMHAS clients, and even to public schools where students could benefit.

The state DMHAS sees value.

“The YASBIZ program … has been an invaluable and incredibly innovative resource for young adults, allowing them to harness their own individual strengths, interests, hobbies and talents as they explore and pursue employment and vocational interests,” DMHAS Public Information Officer Diana Shaw wrote in an email.  “Participants in the program have reported that it has been beneficial to them on many levels; improving their self-esteem, providing a sense of ‘belonging,’ feeling unconditional positive regard, and allowing them to connect with their communities.

“Program staff, or ‘Advisors,’ have also indicated that supporting the young adults with their projects has led to a more meaningful and purposeful working relationship,” she added.

Work and Learn events are open to the public, and the next one is set for December 5 in Meriden. For more information visit the SSV website.