Anyone who has curled up with a good book this summer knows that reading can be the ultimate pleasure.

Books in fact can sometimes be transcendent, though not usually in the way they are at More Than Words Bookstore in Waltham, Mass.

Like many other bookstores, visitors can peruse the stacks while sipping a tasty beverage.  Yet, there is so much more here than meets the eye.

All of the employees are youth in the Massachusetts foster care system. Working at the bookstore becomes the starting point on their journey toward taking charge of their own lives. They acquire hard skills like knowing how to use different computer applications and doing store inventory, as well as soft skills like how to relate to customers and send professional emails.

“While we’re teaching them all of these employability skills, what we’re really doing is giving them the sense that they matter – that they’re part of something,” said executive director Jodi Rosenbaum when I interviewed her in 2011.

They work 20-30 hours a week handling all aspects of running the store. This includes tracking financial information, doing publicity, planning and hosting author events and open-mic nights, running weekly team meetings, and training new workers. They also work to overcome whatever barriers in their lives might be preventing them from taking full advantage of the skills they are acquiring. Each is assigned a case manager who assists with such things as getting a bank account or personal ID card, helps them to get back in school or to stay in school, counsels them about what types of work they might want to do after leaving the program, and informs them of job leads.

Consider the incredible gains these kids make.

  • *82% have attained or are on course to get their GED.
  • *75% are working full-time or going to college.
  • *90% have improved their self-efficacy, which the organization tracks based on goal setting, effort, persistence, and recovery from setbacks.

Rosenbaum explained the simple reason why the model succeeds: “Work is an incredibly rehabilitative and restorative thing. To get up and have something purposeful to do, to get up where you have things that you’re immediately able to meet with success. When you learn to do things your whole self-confidence changes and so by design they meet with success when they start here and it might be little success like learning how to sort fiction from non-fiction or learning how to use a scanner gun and scan books.”