Local pie shop empowers girls through meaningful work

Two workers at TryPie prepare pies to be sold at Hansen’s Dairy in Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

TryPie, “ a social enterprise structured youth ministry that uses employment as an opportunity to engage and equip young women for their futures,”  started as a small group of teenage girls from the Walnut neighborhood in Waterloo who were in need of jobs in 2014. 

A survey by the US Census Bureau found unemployment for ages 16-19 to be almost twice as high in Black Hawk County compared to the national average. A survey done by TryPie program directors, Sarah Helleso and Megan Tensen, of the neighborhood in 2014 showed that parents and their teens wanted things to do after school, and the teens specifically wanted to be making money. 

“So, we gathered some of the girls we had built relationships with and said, ‘If we were to make a business to give you a job, what would you want that to look like?’ Through some brainstorming and conversations with local small business people, they came up with pie,” Helleso said. 

The program originated with the girls in the Walnut neighborhood but expanded when the program directors realized the value the program could have on girls from all over the Cedar Valley. “We quickly realized the value of community could be deepened by having a diverse community,” Helleso said. “In addition to that, the things we were teaching, like job skills, financial literacy and faith development was critical for all students. Regardless of where you live, what your experiences are, or what your family looks like, it’s important. 

There are now nine students from East, West, Cedar Falls and Dike New Hartford High Schools who are part of the TryPie program and work for TryPie.  

The program is supported by the Harvest Vineyard Church in Waterloo and Orchard Hill Church in Cedar Falls, where the girls do the baking of the pies. The churches offer the business opportunities to sell their pies and offer learning experience. Orchard Hill Church offers a place for the girls to do the baking of the pies and hold their workshops. 

TryPie’s mission of equipping youth with skills they will need in the future is expressed in all aspects of the program. “It’s kind of a mix of integrated experiential learning. So that’s what happens in the kitchen when they make the pie. Whether they realize it or not at the moment, they are learning problem solving skills, how to work with a co-worker well, and doing something with excellence, even if it is a basic one,” Helleso said. 

CFHS junior Lydia Ochoa said that through being a part of TryPie she has learned more than how to make a pie, but also skills that she could use later in life. “They bring in people from Veridian and different places to teach us how to save and do accounts and stuff like that, and people have come in to show us how to do resumes to help us.” 

East High School sophomore Mariah Ambrose said TryPie has helped her improve her communication skills.“When living in a generation who only talk through their phones, it’s really easy to be set apart because I’m not afraid to start a conversation.” 

Workers and program participants like Ochoa and Ambrose work two days a week baking pies and participate in a workshop once a month where they have classroom time focusing on four core values: financial stewardship, job skill development, faith development and reconciling community.  On top of that, each girl also has a mentor that they meet with once a month. The mentor helps them set goals regarding the four core values. 

“My mentor keeps me accountable for the things I said I would do. They help when I’m in sticky situations, and they’re really good venting buddies,” Ambrose said.  

TryPie not only teaches the girls about business and financial skills, but how to build a community. “Try Pie has also broken down stereotypes within the community. Before TryPie, if you asked me to hang out with a CF kid, I would laugh in your face. I had this horrible stereotype that all CF kids were snobs. Though clearly this isn’t true,” Ambrose said. 

Helleso said that one of her favorite moments with the girls is seeing people from different backgrounds and experiences connect through the simplest task of making pies. “We had a student from CF and a student from East, they were rolling out together across the table from each other. They had totally different experience from home, totally different histories,” Helleso said, “but now as they are rolling out together, they were talking about the books they like to read and what school is like and the things they want to do in the future. You could see them recognize the value in each other. I don’t think that would happen if they weren’t rolling out pie dough across from each other.” 

TryPie juggles with balancing both the business side and the impact on teens, but program directors Tensen and Helleso said the business is counterproductive if the girls aren’t learning. “The business benefits the girls’ learning, but if the learning is not happening, the business doesn’t matter,” Helleso said. 

Currently, TryPie is operated from Orchard Hills’ certified kitchen. Pies are baked in the kitchen by the girls and sold in various places around the Cedar Valley including Hatchlings and Hens the first Saturday of the month, Hansen’s in Cedar Falls and Waterloo, and Habitat ReStore in Waterloo. 

But on Nov. 17, TryPie will have the grand opening of their new storefront in Waterloo. With the extra space, more girls will be able to be hired and the girls will be able to work more efficiently. 

“Were going to have a lot more efficient space. Right now we have freezers tucked around the church that the girls have to run to for fruit or go across the parking lot for flour or sugar if we run out during a shift. We waste a lot of time just going to get things,” Helleso said. 

Ochoa said she is excited that she will be able to see the customers and interact with them at the new storefront. “We get to work more on customer service skills, actually talking to people, which will be really fun. You know just having a store that we can go to and call our own,” Ochoa said. 

Helleso said she hopes that with the new storefront the girls will also feel that they have more of a “real job.” “To come in instead of seeing church programming things everywhere, you come in, and it feels like a business you want to be apart of,” Helleso said. 

TryPie provides a safe space for girls from all different backgrounds. Program directors Helleso and Tensen make sure they extend an extra hand to girls who need one. 

“It gives them a safe place to learn and grow. Megan and Sarah are really good with rides to places, if you need rides. I know they help people study for the permit test and school. It gives them a safe place to come to,” Ochoa said. 

Helleso’s goals for TryPie revolve around the girls and the impact the program has on them. “I just want them to be sure of who they are and the gifts that they have. That they would be able to look at someone else and recognize their gifts and go out and encourage them with that too. Along with going out and getting a good job, so they can provide for themselves and their families,” she said.

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