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Working with wicks

ASHLAND - Students at Lithia Springs School now have the chance to develop valuable manufacturing skills through a vocational training program made possible by local philanthropist Randy Jones.

Jones, co-owner and general manager for Mahar Homes of Medford, donated approximately $150,000 of machinery and supplies to Lithia Springs Programs from his former candle shop, Mission Laurel Candles, in January. He had operated the candle business for 18 years.

Program director Stephanie Atkinson said Jones has not only donated the equipment necessary to get the commercial candle shop operational, he has brought in a crew of workers to help install it, provided training in its use and handed over his national customer base to kick-start the venture.

"He has just been absolutely wonderful," Atkinson said.

A program of Community Works, Lithia Springs Programs is a residential care center, treatment program and high school for troubled youth.

"What we tried to do here is to create a sheltered vocational experience for the youth in our program," Atkinson said of the school's new candle company. "The idea is that we'd have youth that weren't prepared with skills to go out into the community and get jobs. They come here, learn job skills, develop a work ethic ... and make minimum wage. Then they can use us as a job reference when they leave."

Although students must be at least 16 to qualify for work in the program, Atkinson said the only other requirement is that the job be approved by the youths' service providers. About six workers are employed through the candle factory now.

"They're gaining manufacturing experience and are learning every aspect of the business," Atkinson said. Students learn to make candles using a large rotary candle dipping wheel and wax vats. They also process orders, and package and ship the finished product to customers and distributors.

Atkinson said the workers also learn first-hand what it takes to get a job. They must write a resume and cover letter, and then be interviewed and selected from a pool of potential workers. Once on the candle factory's staff, they must work when scheduled or clear their absence with their boss.

To quit, they are required to give two weeks' notice and write a letter of resignation, "just like we want them to do in the community," Atkinson said.

When youth get bored or dissatisfied, Atkinson said it's a prime opportunity to illustrate why advanced education is necessary to provide occupational choices.

"They come to my office and tell me they don't feel like working," she says, laughing. "I say 'Are you on shift?' And when they say 'Yeah, but my mental health isn't in a place where I want to be here,' I tell them that doesn't work. They can be real cute as to how they'll manipulate to get out of work. I just say, 'Hey, I didn't realize that was an option!' "

Though candle production just got under way in April, Atkinson said the program should eventually pay for itself.

The program's production manager, Josh Sabota, formerly worked for Jones' Mission Laurel Candles business. He was hired to oversee Lithia Springs' program on the Jones' recommendation.

"As I looked around the community and saw some of the things (Community Works) was doing for the disadvantaged, I thought it was a way I could help them," Jones said of his donation.

"I had an ongoing business, with a unique product and hundreds of customers," he said. "Instead of revamping, I decided to gift it to them."

"I was a disadvantaged child myself with some tough upbringing, and I was able to overcome it," he said. "I just thought, if I could help them out, that's what I wanted to do."

"It took a little longer than I had thought, and it cost a little bit more to get them set up and running, But, now it's a happening thing. I couldn't be more pleased."

Reach reporter Shari Downhill at 776-4463, or e-mail

Working with wicks