How entrepreneurship is getting Atlanta’s ‘water boys’ off the streets

Public and private efforts are helping address the root causes of teens selling water
Helping Empower Youth Co-Founder Marc Boyd (second from right) takes a photo with participants of the Hey! Hydrate program in Atlanta on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. The nonprofit created the Hey! Hydrate program as a tool to teach former ‘water boys’ entrepreneurial and life skills while allowing them to safely sell water in Atlanta. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Helping Empower Youth Co-Founder Marc Boyd (second from right) takes a photo with participants of the Hey! Hydrate program in Atlanta on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. The nonprofit created the Hey! Hydrate program as a tool to teach former ‘water boys’ entrepreneurial and life skills while allowing them to safely sell water in Atlanta. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Teen boys are trickling into Glaciers Italian Ice in southwest Atlanta, but they’re not coming to buy the cold, sweet treat — they’re helping sell it.

B.J. Sexton, Kingston Montague and Christopher Brown, rising freshmen and sophomores in high school, are learning the ropes of retailing — from counting inventory to planning for upcoming outdoor events.

Sexton, 15, used to be a “water boy,” hawking drinks on the street when he was around 12 years old because “it was a quick, easy way to get money.”

But it was dangerous, too. And the perils of selling drinks on the high-traffic streets of Atlanta — both for the kids and the public — came to a head in the summer of 2020, when disputes got more violent, a driver was shot and 18-year-old Jalanni Pless was killed over $10.

Over the past three years, there have also been other violent incidents. But the real issue of the “water boys” is not rooted in behavior, but in poverty, city leaders and advocates say.

“These young men are going out here, trying to bring in some money,” Fulton County Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman, whose district includes Glaciers Italian Ice, said during a visit to the space. “Can you imagine working an intersection, and what you make may keep the lights on, what you make may allow us to have dinner for three or four days.”

Now, three years after the initial furor over the water sellers spurred public and private efforts to help the kids thrust into this position, initiatives are in place to help them make money in a safe, more productive way.

From water to ice

Ian Elmore-Moore is the owner and executive director of Glaciers. Originally from New Jersey, he said kids he grew up with sold the frozen treat from pushcarts in parks.

“When I saw what was happening with the Atlanta water boys, I said, ‘Man, this could be a model that could be successful out here,’” Elmore-Moore said. “If I can employ young people that work these pushcarts ... we not only can keep them safe, but we can provide mentoring, tutoring, skills, as well as employment.”

Ian Elmore-Moore (left), executive director, instructs Chris Brown, 14, as B.J. Sexton (right), 15, prepares for festivals where they sell their ice creams at Glacier Italian Ice, Friday, May 19, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In 2021, he got a cart with three fellow Morehouse College alumni and set up at the intersection of Alison Court and Delowe Drive in southwest Atlanta. Kids started gravitating toward him and he began mentoring them.

He eventually set up a shop near the Dixie Hills neighborhood on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and developed a two-year entrepreneurship program for the kids. During the first eight weeks of their first year, from February to April, teens work on character and leadership development. Then around spring break, they begin selling for the first time and throughout the summer have a full-time paid internship where they make $10 to $12.50 an hour.

During the second year of the program, the kids learn management and become an owner-operator of the cart. Elmore-Moore takes them to wholesalers and teaches them how to maintain inventory, develop work schedules and how to manage expenses. In total, there are about 20 kids in the program now.

Brown, 14, hopes that being part of the program will let him “get enough money to just buy my stuff and my momma don’t have to buy it for me.”

Glaciers serves up more than a dozen flavors, all named after Atlanta neighborhoods, including Adamsville Apple, Bankhead Blueberry, Poncey Pineapple and West End Watermelon.

“[Peachtree] Peach is the best flavor,” Sexton said. Montague and Brown disagreed. They are partial to Lenox Lemon and Midtown Mango.

There are 16 flavors on offer at Glaciers Italian Ice on Thursday, May 11, 2023. (Mirtha Donastorg / Mirtha.Donastorg@ajc.com)

Credit: Mirtha Donastorg / Mirtha Donastorg@ajc.com

Credit: Mirtha Donastorg / Mirtha Donastorg@ajc.com

Teens have flocked to Elmore-Moore in different ways. Some walked by his store and were offered a job. Others were recruited by their friends. Some were directed to him by probation officers after run-ins with the law.

But no matter how they got into the program, when they’re in Glaciers, the vibe is relaxed. Jokes fly, they share social media videos and play chess.

Christopher Brown (left) and two other kids play chess at Glaciers Italian Ice on Thursday, May 11, 2023. (Mirtha Donastorg / Mirtha.Donastorg@ajc.com)

Credit: Mirtha Donastorg / Mirtha Donastorg@ajc.com

Credit: Mirtha Donastorg / Mirtha Donastorg@ajc.com

Elmore-Moore’s first cohort of four teens started in 2022 and sold the Italian ice at events hosted by Mayor Andre Dickens’ office and Georgia Tech. They soon branched out to the Beltline, Ponce City Market and local golf courses. For many of the kids, it was their first time in these spaces.

“That’s when it dawned on me about exposure. I knew I was going to mentor them in order for them to to work for us and I knew they were going to get paid, but what I didn’t know is that the cart was going to provide a level of exposure for them,” Elmore-Moore said. “It opens doors that otherwise kind of felt closed.”

The Glaciers program also revealed other social issues. Elmore-Moore said he soon realized some of the kids couldn’t read the menu. He had to color code it.

But it also led Elmore-Moore to launch a school tutoring program. Now, students from the Atlanta University Center come to Glaciers after school to tutor the kids, teach them how to play chess and bring after-school speakers.

From corners to kiosks

KaCey Venning, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Helping Empower Youth (HEY!), has been working for years to help Atlanta kids caught in poverty. A Morris Brown College alum, Venning and her HEY! co-founder, Marc “KD” Boyd, first started working with children whose families struggled with housing in 2009 as AmeriCorps members. In 2015, they formalized the work they’d been doing into a nonprofit and began programming with Atlanta Public Schools.

Views of the exterior of the Help Empower Youth house in Atlanta shown on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

When the “water boys” issue came to a head in 2020, Venning and Boyd set out to help the teens. They wanted the boys to receive help and resources, but they also understood that the boys needed to trust them to accept their help.

“What that looked like was us not going to these young men immediately with a structured program,” Venning said. “It was ‘What’s your name? What school do you go to? You’re not in school, okay, well, what school are you supposed to be at?’ Really building some trust with them.”

She understood that the kids were on the corners because they needed to make money and nonprofit programming might stand in their way. Instead, she started paying about 20 of the boys $100 a day each to spend time at her house, just eating and hanging out, all so they would be in place where they could start listening to the HEY! leaders. The programming that the nonprofit built for the boys was based off conversations of what they needed.

One of the programs born from those talks was HEY! Hydrate, a brand of water bottles created by the former water sellers to teach them business principles like supply chain management, marketing, communications, research and development. The brand is sold online, but also at a city-owned kiosk in downtown near the Georgia-Pacific building. Net profits all go back to the young men.

Helping Empower Youth Co-Founders KaCey Venning (center right) and Marc Boyd (center left) take a photo with participants of the  program in Atlanta on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. The nonprofit created the Hey! Hydrate program as a tool to teach former ‘water boys’ entrepreneurial and life skills while allowing them to safely sell water in Atlanta. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

HEY! has received a zero-interest loan from Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, and the nonprofit’s work is often touted by city officials, including Mayor Dickens.

In an interview, the mayor highlighted HEY! Hydrate.

“This challenge of young people selling water on the corners can also be looked at as an opportunity,” Dickens said. “We’ve been able to guide them into safer ways of being entrepreneurs.”

The city’s Summer Youth Employment Program has been another pathway to employment for young people, who have been set up with jobs at major organizations, like the Georgia Aquarium, the airport and Atlanta Public Schools.

“We’re paying them to be a part of a program where they can make money and learn while they earn,” Dickens said.

In the summer of 2022, more than 3,000 young people between the ages of 14-24 got jobs through the program. Dickens’ office did not disclose figures for this summer.

Alongside the summer youth employment program, the city has given at least $1 million in grant funding directly to organizations who serve young people.

One of those grants went to Glaciers, though Elmore-Moore didn’t disclose how much he’d received.

Through Elmore-Moore’s work, he said he’s been able to see an impact not just on the boys who work with him, but on their families, too. And after their two years in the program are complete, he said he wants to see them spread their wings.

“We want them to fly,” he said. “We want them to take their skill set and go on to do bigger and better things.”

And teens like Sexton say they are getting a lot of value out of it.

“It’s a great experience working here and getting paid,” Sexton said. “It’s a great opportunity. I definitely recommend it instead of selling water.”

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