Monday, February 18, 2013

Welcome Ms. Volz and Students!

Good Morning!  Today I'd like to extend a warm and enthusiastic welcome to Ms. Linda Volz and to each student participating in the High School Economics Classes.  We are delighted that you are interested in speaking with Elliot this week about his small business, Elliot's Ninjas: Helping the Homeless One Ninja at a Time.

I would like to share some background of how and why Elliot chose to begin a business at the young age of seven.

Several influential events happened before he began this journey.  The first was our family's decision to try home education as a path to help Elliot learn in an environment that was suited to his particular gift of elevated awareness.  From the time he was very small, Elliot was acutely aware of his surroundings, whether sitting quietly in the living room playing Lego, or hiking on the wooded trails near his home.  Small movements and little sounds grab his attention.  This habit of awareness, combined with curiosity, made a traditional classroom a highly distracting environment. It was extremely challenging to sit at his desk and focus on completing his assignments while other students played games nearby.

 A heightened sense of awareness for his surroundings was the first factor that played a role in the development of his business.

In the weeks and months following that decision to home school, Elliot made his family aware that he was noticing a problem in our city.  On the corner of many intersections, people were standing, holding cardboard signs that said "HOMELESS, PLEASE HELP!"

This started a discussion.  Elliot wanted to give the only dollar in his Spiderman wallet to a man he saw near our Post Office.  I did not stop the car or allow him to give his only dollar.  I think at that time, he thought I was a mean, uncaring person.

So I tried to explain in simple terms how giving money to panhandlers is often not the best way to help.  It's not the best way to help for two main reasons.  The first reason is that not every panhandler is actually homeless.  The second reason is that cash is often converted into debilitating substance abuse, which destroys the life of the addict.

Unexpectedly, I had to begin talking to my son, at age seven, about the dangers and consequences of substance abuse.  I thought that much of what I was explaining might be incomprehensible to a seven year old, but he really does understand.  He understands that sometimes people can get hooked on things, like too much video games, or too many sweets, and it's very very hard to stop once you have developed an addiction.

But Elliot still wanted to help.  A desire to help was the second step in the formation of his business.

Several weeks after our conversation about money, panhandlers and homelessness, we went out to dinner at a cafe in Downtown Greensboro.  As we passed the library, we met some men standing on the sidewalks, aimlessly chatting.  We said hello and continued on to dinner.  By the end of the meal, we noticed that Elliot was wrapping up his dinner roll in a napkin.  I asked him why he was trying to save his bread, and he said, "I just have a feeling about that man we saw near the library.  I think he might be homeless."

It pulled on our heartstrings to see our child wanting to give.  At the same time, while the man we said hello to on the way in to the restaurant might have been homeless, he was not advertising his condition or asking for help.  We then had to explain that it would be insulting to give a person on the street your dinner leftovers.  It would be assuming too much and might lead to conflict.  But we agreed that Elliot's desire to help was a good thing, and a reason to act.  We told him that since he felt so strongly about helping people, that he should come up with a different way to help, and we would support his effort.

One day, while watching cartoons, I gave him some squares of watercolor paper and paints.  After painting for a while, he mentioned that he enjoyed making art.  Enjoyment of creating something with his hands was the third step in the formation of his business.

Knowledge was the fourth step.  He also knew of, because I have been operating a shop to help with the costs of home education.  He wondered if he could have his own Etsy shop and if that could be a way to help raise money to help homeless people.   With the money he would raise from selling his art, he could shop for needed items like tents, sleeping bags, nonperishable foods and other essentials.   After having help setting up an email account, a paypal account, designing a graphic and listing his first paintings, Elliot was the owner of a business with a heart.  And lots of ninjas.

After sharing the opening of Elliot's Ninjas with our friends and family, he sold nearly all of his paintings in one weekend. He decided to sell each painting for 3.00 each, which was just enough to purchase more watercolor paper, stamps, envelopes, while reserving 1.50 from each sale to put in the fund for helping people.  With each painting sold, Elliot includes a handwritten thank you letter. Every customer loves his letters!!!  Gratitude is the fifth step in Elliot's success.

 Once he had earned his first fifty dollars, we searched for an organization to partner with, and discovered Street Watch.  Street Watch is a group of volunteers who help unsheltered homeless people.  They publish a list of needed items such as tents and sleeping bags.  The founder of Street Watch invited Elliot to deliver the supplies he purchased directly to those in need.  Thus it happened that Elliot was able to visit a tent city and meet the people he wanted to help. It was an experience we'll remember forever.  Reaching out to other organizations and making connections was the sixth step in Elliot's success.

A few weeks later, a local homeless advocate found his Elliot's Ninja Art shop on and sent a reporter from the Greensboro Voice to request an interview with Elliot.  The Greensboro Voice is a non- profit newspaper published for and by people experiencing homelessness.  Our local news station, WFMY News 2, saw the article and sent a reporter to our home.  On the sidebar of this blog, you can watch the first and second interviews.  The second interview happened when an unexpected development gave a surge of hope and energy to Elliot's misson.  A local properties owner saw one of Elliot's flyers and was so impressed that a small boy was trying to help a big problem that he opened up apartments to people in need.  After these events, I learned that printed media is often more powerful than televised news, or even the internet, which is a sea of scrolling and soon forgotten text.

Today, nearly a year after he began his business, Elliot is encouraged to keep painting and keep helping people.  Even when a month goes by with no sales, he still paints and finds a variety of opportunities to give. Over Christmas he was able to purchase scooters for homeless children, and on Valentine's Day he supported local homeless artists at an event hosted by the Interactive Resource Center, which is a day center where people can come to take showers, do laundry, use computers and connect with advocates who help with job and housing placement.  Through all of this, Elliot is learning that small acts of kindness make a difference.

Elliot once wrote a letter to a teacher in Texas who purchased several paintings and shared the story of his mission with her students.  In the letter he said, "the whole idea of homelessness horrifies me."

And now, while the problem of homelessness still makes Elliot feel sad, he's feeling more empowered when he notices the panhandlers and their signs.  He knows in his heart that he's responding to that message:  "HOMELESS, PLEASE HELP!"

Elliot's first t shirt design.  He learned how to screen print this by watching a youtube video.

After his first big shopping trip, Elliot prepares for a visit to Tent City
After his interview at home, Elliot was invited to tour the news station.
Thank you so much for taking an interest in Elliot's journey.  He is looking forward to talking with you in person this week!

 Also, here is the direct link to Elliot's Ninja Art on Etsy:


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