‘I’m going to be all right’: Painting company gives at-risk youth crucial work experience

A year ago, Clay Ladouceur was homeless and desperate to find work after moving to Edmonton from his small town of Boyle, Alta.

His luck changed when he met Nathan Kawulka, the founder of YESS Painting.

“He’s helped me when I never had any help,” Ladouceur told CBC. “He was there for me, and I’m very grateful. Without him, I would probably have nothing.”

Ladouceur, 21, was getting help from Edmonton’s Youth Empowerment and Support Services (YESS) at the time. The agency offers shelter and individualized support to young people who are homeless. 

He heard that Kawulka was looking to hire painters for his new social enterprise, and jumped at the opportunity.

YESS Painting functions on a model similar to the one used by companies that hire post-secondary students to run painting franchises.

Kawulka currently employs a crew of four young people, who were all recruited through YESS. 

They produced about $200,000 worth of work in 2018. 

Kawulka plans to add another crew of painters in 2019, and will donate half his profits to YESS.

Breaking the cycle

Kawulka came up with the idea for YESS Painting through his volunteer work with homeless shelters in Edmonton. 

“Once you’ve been on the street for long enough, it’s really hard to get out of that,” he said. “I just saw people coming in again and again, the same situation every day.”

He decided to use his experience as a painter and entrepreneur to create a business that could provide work experience to at-risk youths. 

“I want to try to get people not just surviving, but trying to thrive. I thought if we start younger, we’ll have a much better opportunity to have success.” 

Nathan Kawulka founded YESS Painting to give at-risk youth the opportunity to gain work experience and develop skills. (Trevor Wilson/ CBC)

Getting YESS Painting off the ground was challenging, Kawulka said.

“The hardest thing that we did this summer was probably planning work for one person and having seven people show up, or planning work for seven people  and having zero people show up.”

As the summer wore on, the painters gained experience and became more reliable, Kawulka said.

“We started producing really good quality work, and I’m really proud of a lot of the work that we did this summer,” he said. 

‘An amazing feeling’

The work is satisfying, said Melanie Cardinal, who paints on the crew with Ladouceur. 

The 24 year-old moved to Edmonton from Fort McMurray to escape the forest fire in May 2016, and didn’t want to go back. 

Lacking specialized work skills, Cardinal wasn’t able to find employment and was struggling in the city.

“This job is a big opportunity for me,” she said. “It’s honestly turned my life around 180 from the beginning of the year to now.”

She takes comfort in knowing that she can fall back on her skills as a painter for the rest of her life. 

“It makes me feel like I’m going to be all right.”

For Ladouceur, nothing beats the feeling of being thanked by a customer for a job well done.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “Not only are your skills validated, but when the customer’s happy you know that you’re actually doing your job to the standards that are expected of you.”

Clay Ladouceur says he’s grateful for the opportunity to work and to develop his painting skills. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

‘Life overhaul’

Kawulka also teaches life skills to his employees, such as how to budget their money or make a healthy meal from scratch. 

“My goal for each of these people is a complete life overhaul,” he said. 

“It’s really just giving people the knowledge and the skills so they can achieve whatever they want to do in life.”

Kawulka’s advice is helping Cardinal lead a more stable lifestyle.

“He’s teaching us basically how to live,” she said with a laugh. “How to do it well, so we’re not struggling with our lives.”

Ladouceur credits Kawulka with giving him the tools and the confidence to turn his life around. 

“We’re youth who have come from a rough background, me personally, facing difficult realities. But he helped us pick ourselves up, and he’s teaching us how to live a sustainable life.”   

“He’ll stick with you. That’s what you need in a boss, someone to believe in you.”

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