By: Doug Romig
Photos by: Buck Kahler
When you enter Borderland Tees in South Knoxville, take all of your expectations and leave them at the curb. This Sevier Avenue community ministry has created something that goes beyond screen printed T-shirts, bicycle message boards, and a wood shop for creative woodwork. Borderland Tees has created a community of people who were previously on the borders of society who are now part of something remarkable.
Bob Riehl and Jenny Arthur began this “boutique ministry” as a way to help those who had become disconnected with mainstream society. These two visionary individuals agree with the philosophy of Mother Teresa who felt that loneliness is the greatest poverty in America. Borderlands Tees maintains a non-judgmental atmosphere where they walk beside one another to achieve their goals.
Without any specific outreach or promotions, it is through word of mouth that people are directed to this entrepreneurial ministry. Jenny and Bob began this enterprise to help several homeless women who quickly became independent, living in homes and taking care of their families. After that success, they began helping people who were suffering from mental illnesses, in addiction recovery, or were socially ostracized because they had been in prison. Bob explained that people deserve second, third, fourth and more chances to get back on their feet. The process is elegant in its simplicity: Be there for the person and let God do the rest.
The success of this ministry is in no small part due to the flexibility of the business model. It began with Borderland Tees – a screen printing shop that made t-shirts for clients as varied as Taoist Tai Chi Society to the Hillbilly Bistro. When one of the workers expressed an interest in getting out into the community to advertise, they added a bicycle billboard program to the repertoire and Borderland Bike Billboards was born.
When ReBob came to them with some woodworking skills and a desire to craft quality bird houses and custom woodwork, the Borderland Woodworks came into being. ReBob tells the story of rolling in on his wheelchair, asking about work. After a brief conversation with Bob and Jenny, Bob looked at him and asked if he could start that day. Three and a half years later, ReBob’s woodworking has blossomed into Borderland Woodworks, an independent business within the walls of Borderland Tees.
On Saturday, April 12, 2014, Borderland Tees received the Institution of Change award from Circle of Change Knoxville. This award goes to an institution that successfully demonstrates socially conscious business practices. It is not the recognition or awards that motivate everyone at Borderland. Jenny said it best when she said, “Create relationships and good things happen to people.” That would make a great t-shirt.