For 100 years now the Trenton Rescue Mission has been a shelter for those least equipped to handle the hardships of life. Today the Rescue Mission provides residential addiction treatment to homeless people and legal help to indigent clients.
But what’s happening in Trenton is unlike any other shelter. A new program using Ivy League students is teaching them how to start their own businesses.
“These are people that given the opportunity, might change their life,” said Mary Gay Abbott-Young, who has been the chief executive officer of the Trenton Rescue Mission since 1986. “We’ve always been sensitive to the fact that our residents in a sense are good workers”
Abbot-Young wants her residents to have a chance at a better future. “We have asked in partnership with University of Pennsylvania to establish a program in which our guys could say ‘when I leave here, if I had an opportunity to go into business, what would that business look like?'”
The program held on Saturdays is taught by Penn students. The current class has nine students.
One of those looking for a new start is Anthony Prestopino.
“I got caught with a half a gram of powder in my pocket, I was given probation,” he said. “Unfortunately, I went back home to Burlington County and got another possession charge so they gave me drug court. The drug court thing didn’t work out for me.” Part of Prestopino’s sentence is to go through the shelters addiction program and that’s how he wound up in the class for would be business owners.
He hopes to open a chocolate shop named The Coco Nut upon his release. “The Coco Nut is quality Belgian chocolate, you know it’s the Coco Nut because I make extravagant flavors, I might use curry powder, I might use Cayenne pepper, but you still have your plain stuff for everyday people,” he said.
Barrett Young, chief operating officer for the Rescue Mission is also a grad student at Penn. He brought the program to Trenton and explains what residents like Prestopino are learning from their mentors.
“How to write a business plan, how to go after funding , how to write a white paper, and it’s just been this thought that was out there that has now become this unbelievable reality.
In addition to Prestopino’s chocolate business, the eight others have widely varied plans. One wants to create an app that you can use to organize business cards, another wants to start a welding business, while another gentleman is looking at going into private security.
Young says a characteristic that lead the men to prison can also help them succeed in the business world. “Most guys who are in prison have taken a risk at some point in their life, unfortunately they have taken a risk in the wrong way and gotten caught and that’s why they find themselves in the situation that they’re in,” he said. “But what I’ve learned is to be a good entrepreneur and good business person is that you have to be a risk taker, so these guys have that skill built in.”
On April 18 the nine hopefuls will go before a panel of judges at Penn to pitch their ideas to experts. They hope to get feedback and perhaps even grant money to bankroll their dream business.