Laurinda Lee-Retter | One Woman's Creative Vision to Empower Toronto Youth through Jewelry

“One person at a time, one youth at a time, one day at a time…that’s how we aim to move the needle.”

 
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Despite being one of the wealthiest cities in the world, Toronto also has the largest homeless population in Canada, with over 20% of homeless people being youth. Ongoing efforts to reform policy and improve education, welfare and criminal justice systems certainly are critical in preventing youth homelessness, but my guest today has taken a more focused approach.

Laurinda Lee-Retter is the founder of the Kind Karma Company in Toronto, employing at-risk and transitioning homeless youth to make handcrafted jewelry. Not only do employees receive fair hourly wages, proceeds from all sales are given back to youth employees to support their individual goals such as funding education, securing permanent housing, or courses for personal and professional development.

Today Laurinda talks about her business and how she provides youth not only with a safe and stable work environment, but also with the resources to invest in themselves and build a strong foundation for a better future.


What sparked the idea for Kind Karma? Did you start with the cause itself of helping at-risk youth, or did you begin with the desire to start a social enterprise?

It started with wanting to be an entrepreneur. That was something that was always a lifelong dream of mine and I would come up with a gazillion ideas every week to start a new business. But it was also really important to give back and have a positive impact. So those two ideas merged into Kind Karma!

You could channel that desire to be an entrepreneur in many different directions. Why a jewelry business?

I found that working in the corporate world didn’t allow for much creativity, and I’m a very creative person (I went to university for music). I made jewelry growing up, and it was almost therapy for me — in the evenings, after I had done my homework, watching movies — it was a way to unwind and make something beautiful. Drawing on those memories and that experience, I thought it would be great to incorporate art into my life again. So that’s why I decided on jewelry: it was something creative, and hopefully something that would help balance my life as well as others’.

What does your business model look like?

We’re a social enterprise, so we have a mission to create a positive impact within the community. We work in conjunction with agencies, shelter, and employment services in Toronto that share the same purpose to help at-risk and transitioning homeless youth get back on their feet, and we hire youth through those groups. Our youth get paid hourly wages — relying on sales commissions isn’t great when you’re trying to find stable housing, and I didn’t want our employees to feel the pressure of missing rent. It’s something that’s consistent and they know what wages they’re going to get.

We’re also really flexible with our employees on their hours. We meet with youth at least twice a week which feels like a good balance, especially because a lot of them meet with case workers and social workers and have doctor appointments. I don’t want them to sacrifice that aspect of their life for work. But if they do want to pick up more hours, I let them take things home so they can work on their own time and get paid for whatever they get done at home.

On top of that, we give proceeds from sales back to our youth employees to help support their individual goals: to help them pay for education, help them secure permanent housing, courses they want to take, or even goals like paying for orthodontic work. Anything that they’ve set their mind to and are working towards, we’re happy to support through the proceeds from our sales.

How many youth do you work with at a given time?

It varies. Right now we have about 4-6 youth on our staff. We’re only two years old, so hopefully we can grow as the years go on!

There are a lot of similar organizations to yours who are focused on improving the lives of at-risk youth. How is Kind Karma unique in the opportunity you provide?

When I was first talking through the idea of Kind Karma, I met with someone who worked to help youth find employment. And she said that there’s many resources out there, but it’s hard for individuals to navigate through the whole process. It made me think that the offerings maybe weren’t the right fit — maybe there are agencies that are able to connect youth with jobs, but what if the jobs that we’re providing are not ideal for these youth and the situation they’re in?

In my personal experience, I suffered from my own mental health issues, and it was really hard for me working in retail to deal with the public because I was fighting my own demons and trying to get better emotionally and mentally. I feel like that’s the typical avenue for these youth — many come from backgrounds where they didn’t do well in school and they don’t have credentials to get corporate jobs. The only thing that’s available is retail or service. But when they’re dealing with mental illnesses or emotional issues, it’s hard to be in those industries. So that’s why I wanted to approach it differently with Kind Karma. Instead of it being your typical job, I wanted it to be more of an art therapy-based employment model, which would hopefully be different in terms of how can youth can succeed. And once they feel like they can succeed and their confidence grows, then they can tackle anything else they want to do with their careers.

So you’re tailoring the work experience specifically for individuals who have an atypical background and who need that extra attention and guidance, right?

Yes, and we’re setting them up for success. We’ve had youth who have stayed longer at Kind Karma than any other previous job, and it goes to show that it’s more of a personal experience. They’re not just one in a number. I work with them directly and hopefully as we get bigger, I’ll have managers that work directly with youth to keep that same kind of relationship. I think it’s less daunting for them — they’re working in a safe space, they’re creating art, and people usually aren’t scared of art class! It sets them up for employment success, which I think other programs don’t necessarily do as effectively.

In what ways have you seen individual lives change because of Kind Karma?

It’s amazing to see the youth that we work with grow in their confidence and see them check things off their list that they wanted to accomplish. Many of them also love to give back, and when they’re stable in their employment, then they can start to do random acts of kindness to give back to the community.

One of our youths used to live on the streets and was homeless for about a year. She finally secured a place to live, she started working with me, and now she’s making good money. I remember one Friday (it was a payday) she came in and asked me where she could find “cheap food that wasn’t McDonald’s”, to quote her exact words. After me asking more questions, she finally said she wanted to give back to the community, and after her shift at work she was going to go buy food and give it out to the homeless. So after work, she ended up going to a used clothing store and bought sweaters and clothes in addition to food, and she ended up giving half her paycheck back to the community. It was very humbling. Many of us make a lot more than she does, but she still had that intention to give back and it was so touching. We often don’t see the people in need because we’re so busy and yet these kids, because they’ve been through it, understand hardship and they want to help other people who are in that same experience. It was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had with our youth.

It can be so overwhelming to think of how to make a dent in some of these huge systemic issues. One of the things I like about your approach is that you’re working towards addressing the problems of homelessness, poverty, trauma, etc. by having a big impact on a small group. Can you share your perspective on that approach?

It can get overwhelming to think of all that’s wrong in the world and all the things that we could be doing to fix all of these problems. Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with the vast magnitude of it that it paralyzes us. For me, it was very much a process of identifying who I wanted to help, and then growing from there. It doesn’t mean that in the future we can’t help a larger group of people or youth through different avenues, but we have to start small and make sure we’re effective in what we do. Even if it’s that one person whose life we manage to change, who knows what that one person is going to do and how they are going to affect people they meet in the future. It’s that ripple effect that I always think of: it might just be one person whose life I’m changing, but what if that person becomes the CEO of a business that helps other people? They might not otherwise have done that if they didn’t have a leg up and the confidence we’re trying to build. You never know how far reaching your impact can be and we just focus on one person at a time.

How do you define success for your business?

Everyone has a different definition, but for me it’s always been about making an impact. It’s about seeing our youth come in, love what they do, and watching them make progress in their life. For example, one of my youth just moved into her new place, her first home that’s truly her, and seeing her achieve such a huge milestone – that’s success. It’s about helping every single youth that we meet, whether or not they stay with Kind Karma for 20 years or just a short time, that’s not the point. It’s that we helped them in a positive way.

What are your plans for expanding KindKarma?

I would love to eventually have a Kind Karma office in major cities across Canada, maybe even the United States, to help youth across North America. In big cities, individuals tend to fall in the cracks — they’re just one in millions and it’s harder to identify how they need help and in what ways. So it’s one of our goals to focus on major cities. Another is to work with different artisans and expand our lines across different mediums!

What have you learned personally since starting Kind Karma?

I’m amazed at how much I take for granted, not just physical things but also knowledge. If you grow up with a strong family and you have resources, you just naturally learn things. For people who come from a background with more struggles or less privilege, a lot of knowledge gets lost in the cracks. It’s taught me a lot about patience, about helping people through, and how to mentor them in the right ways.

How do you move the needle?

One person at a time, one youth at a time, one day at a time. We help them however they need it, however we can support their endeavors in the moment — that’s how we aim to move the needle. We never really know how far that’s going to reach, but we hope that it affects their lives in a positive way and enables them to do whatever it is they set out to do.


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ABOUT LAURINDA LEE-RETTER

Crafting jewelry was a hobby Laurinda enjoyed as a therapeutic pastime when she herself was a youth and the simple pleasure of crafting beautiful pieces became the core of her inspiration in founding Kind Karma Company. Surrounded by entrepreneurs, starting a business had always been a lifelong goal but for her, giving back and ensuring positive community impact were the ultimate motivating factors and so, she adopted the social enterprise model to craft her own form of change. Having suffered through mental illness and understanding the challenges of traditional employment associated with the path to healing, Laurinda saw a need to help at-risk and transitioning homeless youth, who had undoubtedly been through many more obstacles and were facing challenges similar to what she had been through, find employment in a safe and understanding environment. Today, Kind Karma Company partners with local organizations with similar goals to employ at-risk and transitioning homeless youth to handcraft quality jewelery and to help them gain financial independence through an innovative art therapy-based employment model. Proceeds from all sales are returned to employees to support their individual goals and aspirations with the hope that as these youth transform into successful adults, they too, will have the ability and motivation to continue to pay kindness forward.