The Journey

A New Approach to Helping the Community
By Shawna McNally

Load the shirts onto the conveyer belt. Pull the shirts out on the other side. Fold. Repeat.

Scott Ellis, '04, knows this job is monotonous. But he also knows it is an opportunity. The screen-printing company Blue Button Apparel offers more than just custom designed shirts; it helps change the lives of homeless teens in Spokane.

"The most legitimate and authentic change comes from everyday people making a change in the community," Ellis said.

Ellis started Blue Button with the idea of hiring homeless Rogers High School students as employees. Of the 1,600 Rogers' students, at least 130 do not have a place to call home. At Blue Button Apparel, students learn how to work in a real business environment.

Many of the homeless students who make their way to Blue Button Apparel have never had a job before. Their parents and many of their grandparents have never had jobs before. The students have no idea what it looks like to consistently bring in an income. Ellis uses Blue Button Apparel to give them much needed experience in a safe place.

"I want to create a non-intimidating environment," Ellis said. "I want to train them to where they can get other jobs in the community."

At Blue Button Apparel, Ellis' objective is to teach the students how to interview for jobs, give them important professional skills, and give them a good reference for their resume when they graduate and begin looking for work.

Ellis would like to someday provide a mentoring program that provides work, food, and mental and emotional help for the students in need. At-risk teens can benefit from a role model, often not having a healthy relationship to help them develop. He believes that having a program to connect at-risk teens with mentors could greatly influence their lives. Disguised as a job, students would see it as making money, rather than a way out of poverty.

Blue Button only has two student employees at this time. As the business grows, however, Ellis hopes to provide jobs for 10 or more students. Screen printing is a great way for new workers to gain job experience because the tasks are fairly simple. The students have no individual work. Everything is accomplished together in a circle, lending to conversation.

Ellis wants to set these teens up for success. They have often been overlooked and viewed as untrustworthy. But these students are products of their parents' poor choices. They're homeless because they feel safer living away from home. They see how drugs ruin lives and want to be as far away from the destruction as possible.

Jessica attends Ellis' church and works at the Blue Button. She sometimes lives at home with her mother. However she gets kicked out when her mom's boyfriend comes over. Jessica's college fund was spent to cover her brother's phone bill.

Her co-worker, Kat, is 17 and has been living on her own for at least four years. Her father is abusive and is in and out of jail. Her mother is a meth addict. Kat was put into foster care, but soon left, choosing to live on her own. In the winter, she has a small room in a ramshackle house with drug dealers and users constantly flowing in and out. In the summers, she sleeps in parks. With skills learned at Blue Button, Kat will be able to get a job and live in a stable environment when she graduates.

Working with the Rogers High School students has strongly impacted Ellis. Students live their lives based on necessities, making Ellis more conscious of what he buys. Once he got to know the students and their situations, he realized he doesn't need that cup of coffee every morning or new clothes each year.

Sustainability is apparent in Ellis' life. Blue Button Apparel has an environmental cause that rivals other Spokane companies. The shirts Ellis uses are 100 percent organic. He orders most of the shirts through Europe's Fair Wear Foundation from a certified factory in India that pays its workers above the nationally standard wage. The factory is built in the middle of a cotton field, so there is no pollution from transportation. Wind turbines power the building. The factory is completely carbon neutral. Blue Button has some less expensive shirts that are not certified fair trade, but are still made from organic cotton. Using organic cotton shirts prevents chemical fertilizers and pesticides from entering the soil.

Most screen print companies use petroleum-based ink, containing PVCs. An additive that makes plastics pliable, PVCs are carcinogenic and can cause kidney damage over time. Though banned in Europe, the chemical is still used in plastics in the U.S. because it's cheap. To clean this ink, solvents with heavy fumes are used. Blue Button Apparel uses water-based inks instead. Water-based inks contain none of the carcinogenic chemicals and are environmentally friendly when cleaned. Most of the clean up can be done with water, and the rest is cleaned with soy-based, biodegradable cleaners. Rather than having the ink baked on, the water-based ink soaks into the shirt, giving it a much softer feel.

Ellis believes he has found a niche with Blue Button Apparel in Spokane. The other screen-print companies are focused on supplying for athletics teams. They compete to have the lowest prices, and therefore put no thought into the environmental ramifications of their products. As the first screen-print company in the area to focus on helping the environment, Blue Button has the potential to thrive in the next couple of years as the need for earth-friendly companies grows.

In the future, Ellis would like to have a house to rent to Whitworth students interested in helping with the inner city. This would give students the chance to see first hand what it is like to live there. For now, Ellis hopes Blue Button Apparel will start to grow. The space is small, working in one room in a church, with two students working two to three days a week.

"I'm not making a big change now," Ellis said. "But I'm hopefully planting a seed."