Feeling embarrassed by a parent is a rite of passage for most teenagers. Growing up, Susan Elwer felt something more like shame. Every week, as she and her mother walked up and down the grocery store aisles filling the cart, she’d fixate on what was about to happen. They’d get to the checkout, and when it was time to pay, Susan’s mom would present the cashier with food stamps. Susan wanted to disappear. Sometimes there weren’t enough stamps and cash to cover the total. Other times, a scanned item couldn’t be purchased with food stamps. Susan just wanted to blend in with the rest of the families she saw leaving with big bags of groceries without any problems.
Susan’s mom was ashamed as well—she always checked out with the same friendly cashier who seemed the least judgmental. Growing up poor and relying on government assistance for food and medical care was hard on the entire family. There were many times they had to go without things others took for granted—new clothes, special meals, vacations together. As a single parent, her mom did the best she could with what she had. Most of the time Susan didn’t dwell on it. She’d earn money babysitting to help out and focused on getting good grades in school. She was determined to be the first person in her family to go to college, to get a good job, and to pull herself out of poverty.
Susan was always interested in helping others. In college she studied criminal justice and met her future husband, Eric, who was also interested in the criminal justice field and helping people. After graduating, she interned for a residential treatment center for women, where she eventually took a job running the supervised visitation program. After she and Eric got married, Susan shifted gears and began working in the corporate sector. Only she wasn’t inspired by the work—it was more about the paycheck than pursuing her purpose. After two children and a decade as a stay-at-home mom, Susan started thinking about her career again.
Watching her own daughters grow up sparked Susan’s interest in early childhood development. She took a position as an educational support specialist at a public elementary school in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She assisted teachers in delivering lessons and worked directly with students who needed extra support and care. The work fulfilled her in a way she hadn’t experienced. She bonded with students and was making a positive impact in their lives. And when she learned about a 4-year-old boy who’d gone without lunch for the first three months of the school year, she knew she had to do something. Susan made an extra brown-bag lunch for the boy every day until the school was able to connect the family with the services they needed.
Susan hadn’t forgotten what it was like to grow up without food in the refrigerator. She’d felt the pangs of hunger deep in her belly that made it difficult to concentrate on studying or chores or just being a kid. She felt something begin to rumble inside her again, but this time it was a desire to make a bigger impact—to feed more kids. She began to share ideas with Eric. Then it came to her one Sunday in church as the words from the sermon seemed to be aimed directly at her: “Don’t judge, just love.” She would design T-shirts with messages of love and acceptance and sell them to provide meals for hungry kids.
Susan began researching give-back businesses and successful strategies like TOMS shoes’ “buy one give one” model. She realized she could have the most impact as a social enterprise donating a portion of the proceeds from merchandise sales to organizations already working to end hunger. She officially launched Spoonful Apparel (originally Hands and Feet) in 2017. Spoonful designs and sells screen-printed apparel with messages of hope online and at pop-up events. With every sale, the company donates 50 percent of the profits to a nonprofit.
In 2018, Susan left her position at the school to work in the business full-time. This year, Spoonful earned a Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) certification and Eric took time away from his own management consulting business for six months to support Susan in scaling Spoonful. In addition to retail sales, Spoonful also offers corporate and event-based apparel with the same 50 percent donation, allowing corporations and events to achieve their social responsibility goals.
Susan believes we are all here for a unique purpose, and through that purpose we make the world a better place. She says her purpose was placed in her heart that day in church. To date, Spoonful has helped create over 66,000 meals for kids in communities across the United States—proof of purpose in action.
To learn more about Susan’s business, visit SpoonfulApparel.com.
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