Next Doors: Printing with Purpose

Valley of the Sun YMCA Print Studio Provides Work Training for Underprivileged Children

You know all those signs and posters and stickers promoting social distancing? Those things are expensive! For a nonprofit organization, they can be downright cost-prohibitive — especially if your nonprofit has multiple locations Valleywide, all large facilities with hundreds of employees, volunteers and visitors.

I’m specifically talking about Valley of the Sun YMCA and its 13 branches across Arizona. The organization has to print a lot of stuff. T-shirts for staff, employees and children. Signage. COVID-related materials. It adds up.

“In COVID, as you can imagine, we were printing a ton of collateral, and it was changing up constantly,” said Ryan Knak, Valley of the Sun YMCA executive director of marketing. “And of course, being an organization of our size, we’re constantly printing all those types of things for our membership on a monthly basis. We were spending a significant amount of money each year on printing.”

There was another unrelated need — how could they help students at the Watts Family Maryvale YMCA participating in the work experience program, or WEX, a partnership the YMCA has with the City of Phoenix?

“These are at-risk youth, ages 14-24, typically not working or in school,” Knak said. “We’ve got our caseworkers helping these kids in a million different ways, from groceries to housing to GED and college training. But we needed them to have some real work experience.” 

As the pandemic hit, an idea popped into the head of Libby Corral, COO of Valley of the Sun YMCA. What if they took all this expensive printing in-house? And what if they turned it into a youth training program for kids in need?

Thus the Valley of the Sun YMCA Print Studio was born. Its initial goals were two-fold: first, reduce printing costs for the organization, and second, give foster children in the organization’s care an opportunity for employment.

“Those two problems really came together in this program,” Knak said. “We’re able to print our things
in-house and then we’re also able to bring these WEX young men and women into the program to essentially run the print shop.”

In a unique bit of kismet, the director of the Watts Family Maryvale YMCA, Tracee Spire, is married to Chris Spire, who owns a printing company. When the idea popped up, Chris Spire provided some of the initial equipment needed to make the Print Studio viable, and lent his expertise as director of the program.

“It is so rewarding to lead a program at the Y that is taking young men and women, teaching them real-world skills and giving them an opportunity to be successful in their future careers,” Chris Spire said.

The kids who work in the studio are paid through the WEX program, and the goal is to give them life skills that they can carry on and potentially use in their careers.

“It’s these kids learning to come into work on time, work etiquette and ethics, and then they’re learning a real technical skill,” Knak said. “There are a few goals. It would be great to hire these kids as employees of the Y, but we’d also love to see these kids go out and work in a print shop or start their own print shop. And some of these kids may go onto other careers, but really the goal is to build self-confidence and understand what it takes to be an employee.”

The program has not been without growing pains. Like just about everything else, the Print Studio has been affected by supply chain issues that are happening globally because of the pandemic. And when you have a bunch of kids running a business, things inevitably happen. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“It’s real-life experience,” Knak said. “Very rarely do you work in a job where everything is perfectly smooth … we’re still learning, and that’s part of the buy-in, but the beauty of this program is that it’s not perfect.”

The program is garnering some notice in the community as it unfolds. It recently received an Eide Bailly ResourceFULLness Award recognizing its impact as a social enterprise. And it has started printing for outside clients and organizations, including other YMCAs.

“Our goal is to continue to grow this program so that we’re servicing many, many YMCAs across the country and hopefully other organizations in Arizona and beyond,” Knak said. “I think 2022 will be the year we really move beyond our four walls.”

To learn more, go to valleyymca.org. 

About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and a partner at ON Advertising in Phoenix.
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