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“Ruth” has a troubled past. Thrown out of her house at 17, she found shelter and assistance at a drop-in center for at-risk youth where an art counselor encouraged her to express herself in drawings.
A design she named “Eye” was chosen as one of three pictures to grace t-shirts made by Tees at Risk to benefit the center that helped Ruth, and other places like it in Israel and the United States.
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Tees at Risk co-founder Ben Wiener, 42, tells ISRAEL21c that for Ruth, the benefits did not stop there.
“She couldn’t believe we’d picked her drawing and told me she intended to rebuild her life by going to fashion design school and wanted to use it as part of her portfolio,” he relates.
“I said she could also use us as a reference. A kid literally on the street suddenly gets a rush of self-esteem, the shirt benefits the institution that helped her get on her feet, and now it may help her get into school and get her life on track. That’s pretty incredible.”
Cycle of benefit
Wiener was a corporate lawyer in Manhattan before moving to Jerusalem in 1998, when he turned to business and charitable endeavors. As a board member of the Orthodox Union, he became interested in the mission of its Zula program, a downtown Jerusalem drop-in center for teens involved in drugs and alcohol.
His friend and fellow immigrant Richard (Nahum) Kligman, meanwhile, was working at an Israeli rehab center and had the idea of marketing t-shirts designed by teens there.
“Self-confidence is a tremendous issue for this population,” Wiener explains. “To take something they created and make a product out of it is an incredible boost.”
The two men thought to create a “cycle of benefit,” so that the same center where the young artist made the design will get the proceeds from the $25 shirt. For now, Tees at Risk is working with the Zula as well as NY Youth at Risk and the National Runaway Switchboard, based in Chicago. They intend to expand this list.
“In almost any major city in the world, there are drop-in centers where these kids end up, and many of these centers have an art room and/or an art counselor. We let these centers know we have this project, and they can upload artwork digitally,” says Wiener. “If we pick a design from that center, we’ll produce the shirt and send them some of the proceeds.”
Last year, the coordinator of “digi steps,” a volunteer organization based at the Avonbourne School in southern England, ordered a special custom run for the students to wear when they teach senior citizens how to use computers and the Internet. They even wore their Tees at Risk shirts to an award ceremony at the British prime minister’s residence.
“We decided to give the proceeds from our digi steps design commission to the Youth for Technology Foundation, a nonprofit that teaches technology to underprivileged kids in Africa,” says Wiener. “We thought that would be a great way to bring the work of digi steps full circle – from kids teaching the elderly how to use the Net, to helping underprivileged kids learn how to use the Net.”
The story is in the QR code
Instead of incorporating Tees at Risk as a for-profit or non-profit entity, the partners won certification as a B Corporation, a new model that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. More than 600 B Corporations pledge to give away a certain percentage of the sales price (in this case, 10 percent) to charity. Tees at Risk, founded in 2011, was the first apparel company accepted to the program.
For Wiener and Kligman, Tees at Risk is a meaningful hobby rather than a money-maker.
“I would love for it to be a million-dollar company but I don’t expect it to be our profession,” Wiener says. “It’s a test of the concept of giving back. We just want to affect as many lives as we can and promote awareness of teens at risk and showcase how talented they are. We want to give them support and hope, rather than give up on them.”
Working with a fashion executive in New York, Wiener and Kligman started off with three chosen designs that are screen-printed on all-cotton shirts in California, and shipped everywhere.
Production could potentially be moved to Israel if Wiener can find a printer with the capability to screen print and include a QR code at the bottom corner of each shirt. When the code is scanned with a smartphone, it reveals a bit about the designer in his or her own words. This is a unique feature of the product.
If you scan the QR code on the “Bolt” style, you’ll read this back story: “My name is D., I am a 16 year old boy. I ran away from home for the first time when I was 13 because my dad had a drinking problem and it was too violent. I spend some of my time in a juvenile detention center because I cut school with some friends and we got into serious trouble with the police. This picture shows how I feel when I’m at the detention center and my hope for something better in my life.”