By Andy Steiner
Kristy Williams will be the first to tell you that her life hasn’t always been easy. “My super-dysfunctional upbringing turned me into a super-dysfunctional adult,” she said.
She struggled with an eating disorder since childhood (“food was my first true addiction,” she explained); married a “movie-of-the-week abusive” spouse; self-medicated with meth to distance herself from trauma; quit using and relapsed repeatedly until she finally lost custody of her children and ended up penniless, with without a job, a car, a home or a family.
“I was a needle junkie,” she said, plainly. “I went from having everything to having nothing but a bus token.”
These days, Williams is working hard to turn her life around. She’s living in sober housing at Smith Lodge in Plymouth, Minn., going to meetings and doing what she can to make amends. Part of cleaning up her act involves finding work: Since her last relapse, Williams has been in treatment and without a job. It’s a disconcerting, aimless feeling for a woman who always prided herself on her work ethic.
“I want to do something,” she said. “I don’t like just sitting around.” And Williams is concerned that the longer she’s out of the workforce the harder it will be for her to find a job when she’s finally finished with treatment.
A few months ago, one of the other residents at Smith Lodge told Williams about an unusual job that she’d landed, piecework that she could do at home in her apartment. Because Williams doesn’t have money for a cab and the bus only comes to her neighborhood two times a day, this sounded like a perfect arrangement.
“She told me,” Williams recalled, “I’m cutting confetti.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘You know the confetti that people shoot out of cannons at games or throw up in the air at weddings? I cut it. Somebody has to do it.’”
Turns out there’s a market for hand-cut confetti, and Williams’ neighbor was employed by Leonetti Confetti, a Twin Cities creator of custom confetti for weddings, parties and other celebrations, founded by photographer Kylee Leonetti.
What makes Leonetti Confetti unique is that all of the company’s paid employees are women in recovery from addiction. Almost all are clients of Wayside Recovery Center, a St. Louis Park-based comprehensive addiction treatment program for women. Williams’ neighbor, a Wayside client, helped her get an interview with Leonetti, and before long she was hired.
For Williams, this opportunity felt like a major accomplishment, one of the best things that had happened in a long time.
“My life these days is very limited,” she said. “Having this job makes me feel like a real human being again. I’d had a job my whole life and when I relapsed, suddenly I didn’t have one anymore. I feel like a real person again because I have a paycheck coming in.”
Inspired by rock bottom
Confetti is a happy thing, but Leonetti was inspired to start her confetti company by an incident that was anything but happy. Three years ago her brother, a long-time alcoholic and drug user, overdosed and nearly died.
After the overdose, Leonetti’s brother was in a coma for a week. The family stood vigil by his bedside.
“When he woke up and realized what he had put us through, it prompted him to clean up his act,” Leonetti said. “He doesn’t drink or use anymore. He’s completely different now. It’s a side of him I’ve never known. We got lucky.”
This realization of her family’s great luck inspired Leonetti to give back. She wanted to turn her joy over her brother’s recovery into joy for others. She decided to focus on helping people in recovery from addiction.
“I wanted to spread it around,” Leonetti said. “I wanted to be there for people at a time in their lives when they aren’t experiencing all that much happiness.”
Leonetti had watched as her brother struggled to find employment after completing his treatment program. Her husband and business partner, Christian Jensen, said that potential employers often wondered if they could trust him. “People are often reluctant to hire people who have gone through something like that,” Jensen said. “They knew about his past and he had limited work history.”
Leonetti had been mulling over the idea of starting a confetti-making company for some time (she had the perfect name, after all). She explained that she needed people to hand cut the confetti, and in this she saw an opportunity: “I said, ‘Maybe there is a way that this confetti can give back.”
One of Leonetti’s brothers (not the one who fought addiction), weighed in: “He suggested that cutting confetti could be a good activity for someone like our brother who needed a job,” she recalled. Since Leonetti and Jensen already ran Kylee and Christian Creative, their own filmmaking and photography business, they didn’t need another source of income. They decided that Leonetti Confetti would be dedicated to giving back: Only the confetti cutters would be paid. Leonetti or any others who worked on the company would do so for free.
“The idea that Leonetti Confetti could be something that could give back felt great,” Jensen said. “That was something we were both very happy about.”
Because she wanted to give her profits to the most financially disadvantaged groups, Leonetti eventually decided that her company would focus on hiring and training women in addiction treatment. She met with representatives from Wayside, and the two organizations formed a partnership. Wayside clients would have the opportunity to apply for, train and work on Leonetti Confetti orders, and Leonetti would become an informal mentor, supporting the women in their recovery and serving as a reference for future employers.
The confetti-cutting jobs are a perfect opportunity for Wayside clients, most of whom are in situations similar to Williams’, said Teresa Evans, Wayside’s senior director of development and communications.
“Kylee came to us at the perfect time. Wayside isn’t just about treatment. It really is about stabilizing a woman’s entire life. Opportunities like this are ideal for our women, a way for them to start getting back on their feet.” For Williams and the other confetti cutters, the work and the responsibility and commitment it requires is a way for them to take small steps toward a healthy, sober life.
For future employers, a job at Leonetti Confetti demonstrates that a woman has had recent experience holding a job and showing responsibility, Jensen said: “You have to fill out the paperwork, pick a confetti kit up at a certain time, complete a task and drop it off. This can be the perfect job between treatment and a more permanent position.”
For many women in recovery from serious addiction, treatment can be an isolating experience. Some of that is important — removing oneself from triggers and temptation and focusing on the self-examination process is key to recovery — but that separation from loved ones and familiar places can also feel immensely sad and stressful.
“When you are a mother without her children there is such a despair that you carry with you,” Williams said. In the isolation required to maintain her sobriety, she said she feels “particularly vulnerable to the pressures of the world.”
At Smith Lodge, Williams gets a room and two meals a day. Her only income is $99 a month that she receives in General Assistance funds. “That has to pay for everything but my boarding and my food. That’s shampoo, laundry soap, toothpaste, transportation.” While Williams is grateful for the support that she has been given, she still constantly feels strapped for money.
This is the case for many women in addiction treatment, Evans said.
“Not all of our women are employable. They are all working on building relationships and trust. This is a huge thing for our women to overcome because of the trauma they’ve all experienced.” Leonetti’s mentorship and focus on building workers up helps make the program a success: “Kylee is a very passionate and compassionate business owner who is willing to put up the right kind of boundaries, help educate them on soft skills and be understanding when they struggle.”
One of the reasons that confetti cutting is a good match for women like Williams is because it is highly portable. It doesn’t have to be made in a workshop. It can be done at home or in a treatment center, at night after AA meetings or when children are asleep.
The work “is happening wherever they are,” Leonetti said. “Right now we have seven part-time regulars that make confetti for us at home. Sometimes they relapse or disappear, but we have a good core of dedicated workers.”
Confetti-cutters don’t make much money, just $10 an hour. Williams acknowledged that it’s not going to make her rich, but on her limited income it makes a big difference.
“Each kit is $40 or $50 in pay,” she said. “A big kit could be $80, but those don’t come along very often. Usually, every couple of weeks I make an extra $40 or $80. I’m so grateful for it. It’s more than the money.”
More than ‘garbage paper’
Not everyone loves confetti, but a growing number of people do. Its association with celebration and happiness makes it a popular visual element at many weddings, sporting events and birthday parties. Leonetti’s photography clients especially appreciate the color-coordinated confetti the company creates for their special events — “People love doing the confetti kiss-blow to the camera,” she said — but she was also particularly aware of her product’s disposable nature.
Some people consider confetti to be “garbage paper,” Leonetti said. “I have a mentor who told me, ‘You have to find a way to make this confetti something more than garbage.’”
That desire made the partnership with Wayside all the more important. “I want it to do some good because everything gets chucked at the end,” Leonetti said. “My confetti is disposable, but it is made by women to help improve their lives.”
Evans believes that there is more to Leonetti’s product than meets the eye.
“The smile and the giggle is we’re making confetti, but what we are doing is really serious,” she said. “When we started to talk about Kylee’s business model, we saw how it was a unique opportunity for women to have an opportunity to lift themselves up, if only just a little bit.” The idea that Leonetti’s company manufactures something that is designed to bring joy to others felt particularly fitting: “Making confetti is cathartic. You keep your hands busy. You can do it on your couch after the kids go to bed at night. It might fill some extra needs for your family. And the product you create lifts someone else’s spirits.”
Confetti cutters are assigned projects, color-coordinated confetti packages for individual clients. Leonetti preps each confetti order, placing it in a bin she calls a “kit” before handing it off to a cutter.
When she got her first kit, Williams realized that there was more to it than she thought. “It’s not as easy as it sounds,” she said. “It’s actually quite difficult. It’s a long process.” To make things easier for everyone, Leonetti provides an instruction video for employees that explains the detailed confetti-cutting process.
Making confetti might sound simple, Williams said, “but I have to concentrate on what I’m doing and I have to be dedicated to my work.” Some kits take as long as eight hours to complete: “You have to focus. If you don’t focus you might not get the pieces all the same size.” Williams hopes that one day she’ll be able to use the job on her résumé. “I think it Kylee would be a good reference.”
Wayside helps clients work on building the soft skills needed in the working world through a partnership with a program called Emerge Mothers Academy. “Their mission is to build employment readiness for single moms,” Evans said. “We are working with them to take our women through employment training.”
Other opportunities have grown from the Leonetti Confetti-Wayside partnership, including a deal with the Minnesota-themed gift-box producer Minny and Paul. “We started to talk to them based on what Kylee and I had created,” Evans said. Wayside clients now can get jobs packing gift boxes. “It’s another way for them to get their feet wet in the working world.”
There are days in the recovery process when Williams feels like a newly hatched bird, fragile and afraid. Lately, she said, with the support of others, she’s been feeling less fragile and more ready to spread her wings.
“In life everybody at some point needs a helping hand. In my case I had a serious addiction. I overdosed three times. I think I got it this time. I’m praying I do. Having someone like Kylee willing to take a chance on me really helps build my confidence.”
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in MinnPost and is being republished as part of the INN Amplify Program.
Andy Steiner is a Twin Cities-based writer and editor. Before becoming a full-time freelancer, she worked as senior editor at Utne Reader and editor of the Minnesota Women’s Press.