Jenna Weiler and Ambrose are designing the blueprints for kids' careers
Two years ago, Jenna and Adam Weiler set out to turn their four-year after-school experiment into a brick-and-mortar social enterprise, a collaborative design and screen printing studio called Ambrose
“I had this interest in social business from my experience with non-profits and the social work realm. Business always intrigued me,” Jenna said. “We don’t want to just ‘do’ business and kick back a small amount to help our cause. We want to incorporate it into the actual mission of our business. For us, that [cause] is helping students.”
Jenna earned a degree in psychology from Hope College, while Adam studied art at Central College in Pella, Iowa. The pair met as counselors at a summer camp, and for a while were on opposite sides of the country finding their way post-college. In 2008, they were married and settled in Holland, both working full-time jobs in the community. But they knew there was something more out there for them.
“I knew I wanted to help kids. I was a youth director at Rose Park Reformed Church. We were doing a partnership with AmeriCorps
and had a really diverse after-school program,” Adam said. “We tried to pair that with life skill stuff, and did a summer camp with them. That was the most satisfying, pragmatic, technical project that I had been a part of. It was really fun to see this really practical way to help kids express themselves.”
This inspired a meeting with a group of Adam’s students. They asked what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. The responses varied from photography and graphic design to calligraphy and street art. So they asked friends and professionals to lead workshops on these topics, and began the process of creating a space for these students to get their hands messy and be creative. They approached the Holland Area Arts Council
with the idea, and Ambrose was born.
“I was really big into patron saints—this idea that people are known for this legacy. I came across Ambrose. I thought the name rolled off the tongue,” Adam said. “The story of Ambrose is that he was the Bishop of Milan. There was a conflict between the Goths and the Milanese; the Goths had kidnapped some of the Milanese citizens. Ambrose responded by taking the church’s ornamental gold and melting it down as a ransom. I thought that was a beautiful posture towards wealth and towards beauty. I wanted this project to feel similar. I wanted that spirit to be the core of it. That more than profit, people matter.”
This is encapsulated in the mission of the business, “to develop sustainable spaces where mentoring communities can build creative confidence and competence in youth.”
“It started out with street art. It’s stencil print method. The industrial application is silk screen. There is an obvious connect,” Adam said. “So we asked how do you use this core skill set, let kids express themselves, and also make money trying to do that?”
Adam approached a local screen printing shop, Sonscreens. They saw the vision of Ambrose and let them use their space and equipment after hours. For four years, Jenna and Adam went through a variety of experiments involving students in screen printing and other forms of art through the weekly after-school program, even doing summer camps.
“Eventually it grew to the point where we thought we’d really love to have our own space,” Jenna said.
So they started looking for spaces and thinking about how to combine a creative productive area and a space that facilitates community and collaboration. In 2012, they found 224 S. River in Downtown Holland. Shortly after signing the lease, Adam pitched at 5x5 Night
and came away with $5,000 as the winning idea.
“It was good timing for us,” Jenna said. “We were in the overwhelming process of renovating and filling a space with a lot of stuff.”
Since opening in 2012, Jenna and Adam have been working hard to grow the printing and design business as a constant source of income to support the social mission of Ambrose. Ambrose has a variety of programs in addition to After School, including Summer Camps
, Print Together Time
, Do it TUE it, Happy Hours, the Button Bureau
, and team-building workshops
“We’ve been doing more workshops for groups who want to do a screen printing blitz—a kind of team building thing,” Jenna said. “A lot of firms come in and brainstorm an idea, work together with the concept and have a finished product in a t-shirt or a poster at the end. We facilitate that.”
Although by day you will find the Ambrose team designing and printing tees, hoodies and posters, the life of the studio comes from helping “students better explore, understand and make the world they will one day run.”
“One of our goals is to empower students to have their own sub-businesses with our button maker. We’re teaching the students to make the templates, print the paper and the buttons. This way they can make extra money,” Jenna said.
Students are not only learning to explore, communicate, create and understand, they are going on to pursue a range of careers and find jobs across the country.
“As a growing artist, I absolutely loved looking forward to Ambrose on those Thursdays. It was an outlet for me to express to others that thought the way I did. We all taught each other, that was the currency we had,” said Jovanska Almanza, a former After-School participant, now pursuing a media and information degree at Michigan State University.
Alessa Serna is another student who benefited from the programs at Ambrose. She is now pursuing a science and nursing degree at Western Michigan University.
“Ambrose taught me what it is like to work with others, and branch off their ideas to form unique perspectives on my own,” Serna said. “The greatest impact Ambrose had was showing me how much complete strangers are able to work together. Cultural, socioeconomic and other ranges of group preferences could be put aside. The individuality of each of the members blossomed whenever we were together at Ambrose. It is a place to be yourself.”
The students who have participated over the years not only express an appreciation for the program and what they learned, but also hold Jenna and Adam near to their hearts.
“Jenna and Adam are amazingly creative and selfless people,” Serna said. “They’re such a joy to be around and not a day goes by where I don’t miss the Thursday afternoons I was able to spend to with them at Ambrose.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Last Thursday kids were working on buttons, some kids were dancing and some kids were in the back screen printing. It just had this great studio vibe, it reflects a freedom,” Adam said. “We’re trying to create safe places for kids to be weird and be themselves. I wish I would’ve had a place like that to find myself.”
For more information on Ambrose, visit www.ambrose.is
Kelly LeCoy is the founder of Uptown Kitchen and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids.