ITHACA, N.Y. — A small group of teenagers at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center is learning 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.
Anyone who attended the Martin Luther King Jr. GIAC Community Breakfast likely walked by a table stacked with printed baseball-style tees that featured 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 teens behind Bitty Box Screen Printing.
Every weekday, Kiyanna George, Tidaysha Black, Mariah Acker, all 16, and Riley LaDieu, 18, meet in a little room in GIAC to handle orders, print shirts and learn what it takes to handle a small business. They are mentored by Rahmel Mack, teen program leader at GIAC. The cozy workspace inspired the business name.
Bitty Box prints shirts for different events and organizations, like making shirts for sports teams or summer camps. They also printed glow-in-the-dark trick-or-treat bags for Halloween. Though they are learning to operate a business, they are still a program focused on learning, Mack said. The teens also get paid hourly for their work.
“We try not to take on too many orders because it’s more so about teaching them how to maintain something and how to earn on their own, as well as teaching them this is a form of art,” Mack said.
In December, Mack took the group to a screen printing class in Long Island where they made connections, got job offers and came back “fired up.”
Depending on how many colors are used on the shirt, screen printing usually takes about three minutes, Kiyanna said. Tidaysha and Mariah handle a lot of the printing and estimate they have printed more than 1,000 T-shirts. Kiyanna handles the business behind the scenes, keeping track of orders and handling communication. Riley, who recently joined the team, is learning how to design shirts and also does a lot of printing.
The group has experimented with different types of ink, including glow 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 make have been popular too with a lot of positive feedback. All 40 of the Martin Luther King Jr. shirts sold out at the community breakfast Jan. 14. They also received about 20 more orders after the event, which they are filling this week.
The group collaborates with Kaleb Hunkele, who used to own Standard Art Supply & Souvenir in Downtown Ithaca. Hunkele has helped them with new techniques, organizing and orders 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 is just supervising. Riley is learning how to translate his freehand designs into 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 on my own, so this is a good place for me to learn more about that,” Riley said.
Kiyanna, who talks to businesses and groups about ordering shirts, said being a part of the program has helped her gain communications skills.
“Outside of GIAC, I’m a very shy person and I don’t really talk to anyone but this 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 from Poppin’ Collars, which was a T-shirt pressing company, Mack said.
After high school, Mack said, he hopes the four teens will take screen printing with them either to college or their next step as a way to make side money.
Tidaysha said working at Bitty Box has given her 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 about what screen printing is and how to do it.”
The group is next working on a T-shirt for GIAC’s Black History Month Talent Show at GIAC.
Want to reach out to Bitty Box Screen Printing? Email Kiyanna George at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: From left, Riley LaDieu, New Roots; Rahmel Mack, teen program leader; Tidaysha Black, Ithaca High School; Kiyanna George, LACS; and Mariah Acker, Ithaca High School. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice