The seed for Good Lawns was planted during a staff meeting. Hasan Stephens, founder and executive director of Good Life Youth Foundation, wondered how to teach youth to make money using resources around them. What about offering to clear snow or cut grass? Unfortunately, the young people seeking work wouldn’t have equipment. What if they borrowed mowers and offered their services to the neighborhood? It was worth a try.
Pretty soon Good Life, based at Syracuse’s South Side Innovation Center, planned a one-day project one Sunday last August. As staff worked with seven young men, ages 14 to 18, the simple idea took root, then grew like weeds. Demand was so high – including requests from Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh and City Councilor Joseph Driscoll – the work stretched through September. That success grew into plans for a year-round business mowing grass, removing leaves and clearing snow.
“Money was the motivation,” Stephens said. “But they experienced pride in their work and caught the entrepreneurial spirit.”
Good Lawns reflects Good Life’s mission: cultivating entrepreneurial thinking and action to improve the lives of Syracuse youth. Programming addresses life skills, asset building/financial literacy, entrepreneurship and health and wellness. Coaches draw on hip-hop lyrics and themes to discuss ways to improve their lives.
In addition to Good Lawns, the agency runs a print and embroidery company and a vending machine company. Youth run the social enterprises, with staff help. Those working with Good Lawns keep some of the profit, and those working on the other enterprises receive stipends.
Stephens grew up in the Bronx and came to Syracuse in 2002 after graduating from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. His five-year strategic plan for Good Life includes creating the Hip-Hop Center for Youth Entrepreneurship to house the agency.
Good Life works, in part, because its staff grew up in circumstances similar to those of the population they serve. “I would not have escaped had someone not done it for me,” Stephens said. “These kids are smart. They just haven’t had an opportunity.”
We provided Good Life with a grant to purchase equipment for Good Lawns. Half the grant came from our community fund; the other half came from the Jelly Bean Angel Fund for Innovation, established by Vicki Brackens with her wife, Earlene Jones.
Brackens, president of Brackens Financial Solutions Network in Syracuse, served on the Community Foundation’s board from 2005 to 2011. She created the fund to support local entrepreneurship that benefits the community. Good Lawns fits the bill.
Stephens, she said, “is committed, not just interested. A lot of people are interested but don’t want to put in the work to make it happen.”
His authenticity and commitment to youth are crucial, she added. “They trust him, and they believe in him,” she said.
As Brackens knows from experience, new ventures need money. But the Jelly Bean Angel Fund also carries a personal boost. “It’s a way to say, ‘You are on the right track and someone believes in you,’” she said.