Lotion company started by nonprofit gives jobs, training to homeless

Just B – B Just was founded three years ago as a nonprofit designed to help the homeless beat poverty and teach them business skills. (Courtesy of Mike Tapscott)

Ten years ago, Fabian Bennett was in the midst of a rocky life on the streets. Calloused from hard drugs, alcohol, violence and two jail sentences, the last thing he would picture himself doing was making aroma bath products.

But in 2009, he was doing just that.

“I went from cooking dope, to cooking soap and giving hope,” he said with a smile.

Part of Bennett’s and countless others’ drastic life changes can be accredited to the Lodestar Day Resource Center, a nonprofit organization operating near 10th Avenue and Jefferson Street.

The LDRC focuses on principles to help mend the immediate, mental and spiritual needs of the homeless in the downtown Phoenix area. Various programs are designed to help them get off the streets and to restore their lives. At the LDRC, it’s a positive and encouraging environment where everyone can be respected and loved.

One particular program of the LDRC is Just B – B Just, a lotion company designed to help homeless individuals overcome their poverty through valuable business skills. Founded three years ago, the idea was conceived by Nancy Gerlach, a former employee of the LDRC, after she and a group of members were asked to make 900 bars of soap for an event.

She realized this could be a permanent business where they could make a profit while utilizing it as a tool to teach. Possible interns are scouted out for the six month program. They are given payment for housing and a small stipend while they run their own cosmetic business and learn how the business world works.

“The whole business is really run by the homeless individuals in it,” said Michael Tapscott, the Special Manager of the LDRC who also oversees the program. “If you really understand how a company works, then you can go into any job and understand how it works. At Just B, we aren’t trying to turn out people who make lotion and soap in their life, but instead we are teaching them how to be a great employee or business owner.”

Participants learn not only by writing emails, making presentations and understanding spreadsheets, but also by managing others in the program. Participants have group meetings where all the business decisions are put up to a vote. They get to choose every aspect of the Just B line, from scents to packaging and pricing.

Participants are immediately put into classes that help benefit them further like book studies, computer classes, manager and training courses, private tutoring to help them attain a GED or degree and more.

The products in the line include solid and liquid soaps, lotions, hand creams, lip balms and candles. All products are 100 percent vegetable based and, with some exceptions, are also organic. Participants cut and wrap soap, create creams from scratch and wrap labels onto all the merchandise. So far, their products are sold at six Whole Food stores, Books and Blessings, Spirit in the Desert and at first and third Friday Art Walks.

Bennett was the first official graduate of the program, which helped him clean up his life.

“I used to cook meth back from my days on the streets, but with (Just B) I was making something healthy, something that’s good for people,” he said.

While Bennett may have learned vital business acumen and composure, he is also helping others by teaching new participants in the program.

“Fabian changed my life. I learned more from him than what I taught him,” Tapscott said. “He didn’t just find a purpose in life, but gave life a purpose, and to see him undergo this transformation has changed me forever and has made me a better person.”

Now, Bennett works full time at the LDRC as their Special Engagement Specialist, beating out other applicants who had college degrees. He hopes his journey to success will help inspire others to do the same.

“I just want to be that flicker of hope to somebody,” he said. “I know I can’t change everyone, but I want to help people in any way that I can.”

Bennett is one among many who has been touched by Just B.

“By the time people come to us, they are broken,” Tapscott said. “They have probably been marginalized for a long time, probably been ignored, probably have been abused and probably have no self-esteem”.

Trying to build hope from a seemingly hopeless lifestyle is exactly what Bob Bullard, a part-time employee at Just B, did.

After years of bouncing between half-way houses and drunken fights on the streets, he finally sought out help. He arrived at the LDRC two years ago, and fell in love with the program, place and people. Since then, his self-esteem has skyrocketed — his whole outlook on life has been brighter.

“I am here by the grace of God,” Bullard said. “I’m a real person, and a worthy person. You lose a sense of humanness on the streets, but here at Just B, they give you a hand up on life, not just a hand out.”

He now works with a computer every day, a device which he never knew how to use before arriving at the LDRC. He has formed close relationships with others in the program, and currently lives with Bennett. He views his role in life as helping others in his former position get help.

The jobs that Just B provides are extremely valuable to those in the program. Even after spraining her knee and ankle, formerly homeless Sheri Shepard begged and pleaded with her doctor to let her go back to work.

“I love working here,” she said. “I wouldn’t change it for anything. When I first arrived here, I wasn’t smiling, I wasn’t happy, I was depressed. But now, I can’t stop grinning.”

Shepard makes beauty products and jewelry through a branch of Just B called Street Art, which allowed her to use her creativity and passion. She is now very active, not only with Just B, but also with ballroom dancing and acting classes.

“I wish people wouldn’t think of the homeless as dirty,” said Judy Haddon, who interns at Just B. “We are all one paycheck away from being homeless. It would be great if more people could invest, more people could be involved. This (program) helps a lot of people, and it only goes for those who want to help themselves.”

Since joining, she has been able to take care of herself by bettering who she is, and is growing as a person.

“I have finally found Judy,” she said proudly. “On the streets, I felt like I was wasting time living in a tent. When I walk on the streets now and see the people there, I think ‘I used to be that’. Here, I can learn a business, and hopefully someday be my own entrepreneur.”

She has been grateful and humbled for this experience, and come January, all of her hard work will pay off as she will become the head of production management for the business.

Perhaps nothing like the title of Just B – B Just can perfectly sum up its purpose. It’s what Tapscott describes as, “The concept that everyone has the right to work. We should let them be, by being just to them and allowing them this opportunity to work.”

Contact the reporter at lauren.l.clark@asu.edu