Building resumes, rebuilding lives

More Than Words bookstore gives troubled teens jobs and a chance to rewrite their futures

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / May 17, 2011

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WALTHAM — Juggling coffee orders at the More than Words bookstore, Richard Kiburis seemed like the typical teenager at his after-school job. There was no hint of the hardships the 17-year-old has faced in recent years.

His father went to prison. His family lost their home to foreclosure. He lived in homeless shelters in Florida and Massachusetts.

“I got depressed sometimes when I realized where I was,’’ Kiburis said recently during a shift break. “But I would try to be optimistic and think about how things can change.’’

More Than Words is a bookstore filled with stories, but few may be as compelling as the stories of its employees — teenagers whose lives have been turned upside down by addiction, abuse, or neglect, who often end up in foster homes, homeless shelters, or the court system.

The same teenagers run the little Moody Street bookstore, finding stability, support and social services that help them build a resume and rebuild their lives. Hundreds have completed the program, now in its sixth year. Two years after completing the program, 80 percent of teens were involved in some combination of school, whether college courses or a certificate program, and work.

Jodi Rosenbaum, founder and executive director of the program, said the bookstore is also a thriving business that is expected to generate $200,000 in revenue from store and online book sales this year. That surprises those who were skeptical such a shop could be successful enough that it will open a second location in the South End of Boston this summer. But she said the teens liked to view themselves as the take-charge type.

“The youth responded in a way that was different — they thought of themselves as smart and articulate and special,’’ Rosenbaum said of the young staff. “It took on a life of its own.’’

For most teens in the program, the job is their first. For many, learning the importance of making eye contact with customers is an important lesson. Seasoned employees can rise, and many leave the program able to give PowerPoint presentations and dreaming of running their own small business.

Kiburis, a 6-foot-6-inch one-year shop veteran, said the job helped him move past the reclusive months he spent in a shelter, too embarrassed by his circumstances to make friends. On a recent weekday, he led a staff meeting assigning employees various duties during their shift.

“I like when responsibility is on me,’’ Kiburis said. “It makes me feel important.’’

The shop is a refuge for customers, as well, resembling a fast-vanishing breed of used bookstore, minus the cats. There are comfortable seats, shelves of careworn classics, and brimming bargain bins. Coffee is bargain-priced because Starbucks donates the beans.

Books, too, are donated, sorted by teens and volunteers in a cramped, sunless basement. Titles are logged by computer and either end up on the store’s shelves or sold to online buyers via eBay and Amazon. Giant boards hanging on the walls list online sales goals ($12,500 last month) or personal goals (“get high school diploma.’’)

Rosenbaum said the shop is a “hybrid social enterprise’’; teens accepted into the program are required to work at least two shifts in the store and attend weekly meetings to discuss business operations, from problems to improvements. The teens are also required to meet with social workers for several hours each week at a satellite office several blocks from the shop for individual and group counseling.

To pay for those services, More Than Words supplements revenue generated by the store with donations and grants for a total operating budget of $750,000 last year.

About 35 percent of teens drop out of the program before six months.

That’s what happened to 19-year-old Francis Sealey, a Belmont High School dropout who was arrested for stealing cars at 15. His probation officer referred him to the program.

Sealey said he enjoyed working in the bookstore and cafe, because it gave him a new way to relate to people by offering them coffee or help, but he was fired for chronic lateness. He reapplied, hoping for a second chance. He got it, successfully completed the program, and earned his GED.

“I realized this was a place where I wanted to be,’’ Sealey said of the shop.

Rosenbaum founded More Than Words after working for the public service program Teach for America. She said the idea came to her after a friend found a pile of discarded books on the side of a road and realized they were worth money. A business was born, but one with a social mission.

Herman “Dutch’’ Leonard, who teaches the value of socially oriented enterprise at Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School, said More Than Words embodies many of the principles he teaches about the value of pairing a desire for social change with entrepreneurship.

“There are kids learning how to be positive participants in society, and they’re not asking the public for charity to contribute to that learning,’’ he said. “It’s an element of the brand.’’

Or as Wilmer Ortiz, an 18-year-old employee at the store, said, it’s about “leveraging’’ yourself.

A junior at Arlington High School, Ortiz lives in a group home for foster teens, far from the family he left behind in Honduras. His caseworker referred him to the program last year; since he began working at the bookstore, he has developed an interest in reading. One of his favorite books is “The Catcher in the Rye,’’ by J.D. Salinger, he said, because it is told from the perspective of a teenager living away from his parents.

His newfound love of reading made him realize he wants to go to college.

“I know what I want to do,’’ Ortiz said. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted before.’’

Kiburis knows what he wants to do now more than before, too. He plans to finish high school and go to college, possibly studying graphic design or computers. He and his mother now rent an apartment, and he has made friends.

His yearlong stint at More Than Words ended in April, but Kiburis has landed a new part-time job working as a cashier in the cafeteria at Bentley University.

“I’m a little nervous,’’ he said of the change. “But I’m ready.’’

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at