For the past two years, one West Shore Christmas tree business has been doing more than just providing a holiday centrepiece – they have been providing valuable life lessons and skills for youth in need.
Happy Holidays Christmas Tree Co. is the brainchild of educator and entrepreneur Debbie Stroshein. It came about from her recognition that youth are often unprepared to enter the workforce, and the entry-level jobs they often start out in do not always provide the right environment for them to develop life and employment skills.
“Teenagers have a stigma attached to them in the community and especially when entering the job force,” said Stroshein. “I’m trying to provide them with transferable skills so when they leave here … they have confidence heading into job interviews.”
Stroshein involves her young employees in all aspects of the business, from taking deliveries of the trees, to providing good customer service and even the intricacies of small business bookkeeping, all while paying them more than the minimum wage. Sprinkled throughout the short holiday business season are plenty of other teaching opportunities as well.
On a delivery day for example, she was showing her staff how to tell the difference between tree species as they organized the lot. Learning about trees while working on a cold, dark evening might not sound like something teenagers would be interested in, but in that moment they were genuinely engaged and interested in what she had to say. Throughout the evening, the lot was filled with smiles and friendly banter.
Stroshein credits the trusting and caring environment she creates in her business, and the recognition that each employee has their own unique needs, for that engagement.
“It’s a safe space. A lot of the people who come through here have challenges with mental health, so having the mentors who have a connection with them through school … really builds their self-esteem and confidence,” she said.
For 18-year-old Rowan Bell, this management style has made him see the job as more than a way to earn some holiday cash.
“She knows my interests, she knows my dislikes, she knows what I can do and what I can’t do and works with it,” he said. “Customer service is a big thing I think a lot of us need to know, and she is definitely teaching us that.”
In the short time he has been working with Stroshein at the lot, Bell said, he has already started feeling much more confident when dealing with others and in working as a team with his colleagues.
Stroshein’s right-hand-man and fellow educator Nick Zethof said it is a wonderful thing watching everyone learn and grow on the lot, adding the experience is something he would love to see expanded in future so even more youth can benefit.
“It’s almost like a work pipeline, where they are coming with connections made in school and using them to learn and grow through this practice and interacting with the public,” he said. “Watching the growth in them … it’s amazing.”
The biggest area of improvement Zethof sees in the youth is their confidence. Many are not comfortable interacting with strangers when they first arrive – especially in the form of customers they must help serve – but by the end of the season they are eager and excited to help anyone who visits.
The tree lot is open Monday to Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m., Friday from 3 to 8 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and can be found on Marwood Avenue in Langford, next to Luxton Hall.