Julee Rachels hesitates to talk about herself, making it difficult to determine in what way she developed her acute sense of vision — just how she happens to see what so many others miss.
"It's not about me," she says, repeatedly, but will grudgingly admit that Heartisans Marketplace — which is a store and a job training program for women — was her idea. After learning the details of Heartisans, a visitor cannot imagine it happening without Rachels' foresight.
And what did she see? Nothingness. A void. A hole that was calling out to her to be filled, using the essence of what would become the motto of Heartisans: Love Serves.
She envisioned a vehicle — she had no idea what it would look like — that would transport women out of generational poverty and into good-paying jobs using training and healthy doses of exposure to the attributes of strong, positive women.
The program, at 112 W. Methvin St., started in November, but even at a seven-month infancy results are being seen. Heartisans Marketplace is transforming lives.
The cooking connection
As a member of the mission-minded Longview First Baptist Church, Rachels is often on the lookout for a way to serve — and regularly finds it.
So when her friend and former business partner, Jane Ann Crowson, called with an idea to hold a cooking class at the Belaire Apartments, Rachels jumped at the opportunity.
"This wasn't a church mission for me and my husband," Rachels said, "but First Baptist has sort of adopted Belaire, so I was familiar with it."
The concept was to accomplish three goals: teach the women how to prepare healthy meals, hold a short Bible study, and make a connection with the women that would last.
By all accounts, each of those goals has been met.
"Each week we had 20 women come in and learn how to cook healthy meals," she said. "At the end of each lesson, we would give them the groceries to make the meal themselves."
Halfway through the course, Rachels worked with Buckner Family Place — where Crowson now works — to teach a course on crockpot cooking, then gave every one attending a crockpot of their own.
"The important thing about a crockpot in Belaire is that you don't have to turn on the oven," she said.
"To have air conditioning in Belaire, you have to pay $35 more a week, so many people don't have it, and a crockpot keeps the house from getting so hot."
But Rachels saw something that disturbed her while teaching the cooking class.
She saw many of these women were stuck in poverty and taking welfare because they were not qualified for well-paying jobs.
"Any job they could get would be minimum wage, and that was never designed to support a family," she said. "It was more beneficial for them to take government money than to work."
'What are we gonna do?'
For Rachels, who has owned two successful businesses (she and Crowson operated the Cooks Nook), this was a glaring gap in services. Women were being kept in poverty because they were taking government assistance, not realizing they could advance their lives through decent-paying jobs.
Except they could not do that without training and, for many, a change in attitude.
She began talking to her friends about the problem, trying to get their ideas for changing the way things work in Longview.
In her mind, there was never a question that she would take action, only what it would look like.
"I asked people, 'What are we gonna do' about this?" she said.
First Baptist Church had done a poll of members and found the single favorite activity for women was doing arts, crafts and sewing.
"But we didn't want to just do arts and crafts," she said. "We wanted to figure out how to do it 'missionally.' "
It didn't take her long to decide.
A business plan
That led to the establishment of a pilot program that 14 women — some from the cooking class — joined.
Rachels is a pragmatic, no-nonsense businesswoman, and she had no intention of failing in her mission.
The pilot program would have women producing arts and crafts that then would be sold to the public.
But no products would be made until each went through a rigorous business plan.
"I talked to my friends about what was popular at the time," Rachels said. "Then we asked questions about each one. How long will it take to make? How much will it cost? How much will we sell it for? Will this product sell at all?"
Production and sales followed, with Rachels tracking the profits. Each woman involved in the program knew that the profits would be shared at the end of the year.
"When the year was done, we had a big celebration," Rachels said. "I gave all of them their share, and it was some good money for Christmas presents, but it didn't get them on their feet. It wasn't going to get them out of Belaire."
It was Rachels' goal to give the women the financial freedom to live where they wanted on their own terms with their own money.
And, of course, the program had to support itself, or at least without government money. "If I wanted to get them free of government assistance, I couldn't take it myself," she said.
Finding a model
With the help of her daughter, Rachels found what she was looking for in Nashville, Tennessee — a nonprofit group called Thistle Farms that produced goods and gave job training as well as a good bit more that was not feasible in Longview.
She visited Thistle Farms on several occasions and spoke with the directors. She came away convinced that she had found her "vehicle."
"I knew that was the model I wanted to follow, but I couldn't do all of it. I had to fashion it for Longview."
That is when the real work began. She enlisted the help of numerous friends to help her make Heartisans Marketplace a reality.
It began with qualifying it as a 501 3C organization, then trying to determine what kind of training would be offered and how it would fit each woman.
Job Ready Work Keys
"Where I saw the hole in Longview was that women could get job training, but if it doesn't fit them, then it won't work. If I could give them something they loved to do, something they are good at, then going to work will be a joy. When you love your job, it isn't work," Rachels said.
The answer to that came in an unexpected way. It was called Job Ready Work Keys, an ACT testing system that tells employers if candidates have the education and intelligence to perform jobs for which they are applying.
"I didn't even know that Longview is a Job Ready Work Keys community," she said, adding that there are more than 60 companies in Longview that use Job Ready Work Keys testing to qualify people for a position.
Rachels got this information in a meeting with officials from the Longview Economic Development Corp., who were so impressed with her idea that they offered to give Heartisans materials that would help clients get the scores they needed through pre-testing.
"We never could have afforded to get that by ourselves," she said. "It is all because of the Longview Economic Development Corp. I can't sing their praises enough."
Putting it all together
Touring the way Heartisans works, the average visitor would not guess how new the program is.
Job trainees go through an extensive interview before they are allowed into the program and must be referred by another nonprofit agency.
They must at least have a GED, and they must pass a drug test, which can be administered at random.
"They have to be honest with us," Rachels said. "We can work with them in a lot of ways if they are honest, but we need to know exactly what their situation is.
"And they cannot be using (drugs). If they are using, then they aren't serious about changing."
If clients have court-ordered community service, Rachels sees that it gets done. The same is true for fines or other legal matters.
The first step after being accepted into the program is determining what kind of career is a good fit. Rachels then researches job opportunities in this area to make certain there is a demand for that skill.
"It doesn't do any good to train someone for a job that doesn't exist," she said.
Clients spend about half their time working on the job training testing and about half their time helping produce the arts and crafts sold in the store. They must do both, and if they don't know how to do a particular task, such as sewing, they are taught.
Volunteers from across the community round out the production of crafts, which Rachels insists be well done.
"People don't want to buy something that doesn't look good," she said.
The volunteer turnout is good — everyone at Heartisans, including Rachels, is a volunteer, but she said more are needed, especially those who enjoy doing craft work or sewing.
While Job Ready Work Keys training is essential, the real secret behind the program is the exposure the clients are given to strong, positive and successful women.
The opportunity to be a role model who helps nurture women from weak to strong is what drives Rachels and all Heartisans volunteers.
It doesn't take long for a close bond to form between volunteers and clients.
"These women are our friends. We want to see them succeed," she said.
But it is ultimately the responsibility of the clients to make that happen.
"We are not going to do it all for them, but we will come along with them," Rachels said. "We will get them out of the hole."