ITHACA, NY – A small group of teens from the Greater Ithaca Activities Center learn what it takes to run a screen printing business – from taking orders and designing to printing the shirts themselves and selling them at community events.
Everyone who attended the Martin Luther King Jr. GIAC Community Breakfast probably passed a table piled high with baseball-style t-shirts printed with King on the front and the quote, “Darkness Cannot Drive Out Darkness.” ; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
The shirts, which sold out at the event, were created by four business-savvy teenagers behind Bitty Box Screen Printing.
Every weekday, Kiyanna George, Tidaysha Black, Mariah Acker, all 16, and Riley LaDieu, 18, meet in a small room at GIAC to handle orders, print shirts, and learn what it takes to run a small business. They are mentored by Rahmel Mack, head of the teen program at GIAC. The comfortable workspace inspired the name of the company.
Bitty Box prints shirts for different events and organizations, like making shirts for sports teams or summer camps. They also printed some glow-in-the-dark candy bags for Halloween. Although they learn how to run a business, they are still a learning-oriented program, Mack said. Teenagers are also paid hourly for their work.
“We try not to take too many commissions, because it’s more about teaching them how to nurture something and how to earn on their own, as well as teaching them that it’s an art form,” said Mack said.
In December, Mack took the group to a screen-printing class on Long Island where they bonded, got job offers, and came back “excited.”
Depending on the number of colors used on the shirt, screen printing typically takes around three minutes, Kiyanna said. Tidaysha and Mariah do much of the printing and estimate that they have printed over 1,000 t-shirts. Kiyanna handles business behind the scenes, tracks orders and handles communication. Riley, who recently joined the team, is learning to design shirts and also making quite an impression.
The group experimented with different types of ink, including phosphorescent ink, as well as foil. They also want to try printing on canvas or paper.
“It’s more about the learning than the product they make,” Mack said.
But, the products they manufacture have also been popular with lots of positive reviews. All 40 Martin Luther King Jr. shirts sold out at the January 14 Community Breakfast. They also received around 20 more orders after the event, which they are fulfilling this week.
Related: ‘Hate Is Evil, But So Is Indifference,’ Discusses MLK Breakfast Speaker
The group collaborates with Kaleb Hunkele, who owned Standard Art Supply & Souvenir in downtown Ithaca. Hunkele helped them with new techniques, organizing and ordering their screens, Mack said.
Right now, the shirts are mostly designed by Mack, but he said he wants the program to get to a place where he just oversees. Riley is learning to translate his freehand designs in Photoshop and Illustrator and plans to start designing shirts. He’s creating one for the Ithaca Festival this summer.
“I was trying to make shirts myself, so this is a good place for me to find out more about that,” Riley said.
Kiyanna, who speaks to businesses and groups about ordering shirts, said being part of the program has helped her learn communication skills.
“Outside of GIAC, I’m a very shy person and I don’t really talk to anyone, but it gives me the opportunity and it helps me create a conversation with people,” Kiyanna said.
Bitty Box debuted at the Ithaca Festival/GIAC Festival over the summer, after being rebranded as Poppin’ Collars, which was a t-shirt pressing business, Mack said.
After high school, Mack said, he hopes the four teens will take screen printing with them either to college or to their next step as a way to earn money.
Tidaysha said working at Bitty Box gave her the motivation to work and be active after school.
“Now I have something to do after school and it’s a fun experience,” Tidaysha said. “It’s interesting to learn what screen printing is and how to do it.”
The group then works on a t-shirt for the GIAC’s Black History Month talent show at GIAC.
Do you want to contact Bitty Box Screen Printing? Email Kiyanna George at [email protected]
Featured Image: From left to right, Riley LaDieu, New Roots; Rahmel Mack, teen program manager; Tidaysha Black, Ithaca High School; Kiyanna George, LACS; and Mariah Acker, Ithaca High School. Kelsey O’Connor / Ithaca Voice