North Bay Spirit Award winner Letitia Hanke helps minority youth find path to success
Letitia Hanke has a lot of stories to tell. Some bring a broad smile to her face or end in an eruption of laughter that may include a happy squeal.
But she doesn’t hold back on the stories that are painful to share, even if she has to pause in the middle when memories cause her throat to tighten.
As a female CEO of her own roofing company, Hanke is prepared for those who might underestimate her because of her gender in the overwhelmingly male-dominated building trades. She’s developed a strong sense of self worth and a thick skin over some 20 years in the business. But as an African American, she’s found that racism has sometimes proven to be an even darker and trickier force to deal with.
There was the couple with whom she had a friendly rapport over the phone and were enthusiastic about moving forward with a roofing job. But when she showed up at their Skyhawk home in Santa Rosa with samples and a contract, she got an icy reception.
The man, who was warm and jovial over on the phone, refused her handshake. The couple said they had decided against replacing their roof and within five minutes, showed her the door. All the warmth expressed in the phone call turned cold. As she exited the man cautioned, “I just want you to know we have an alarm system on our house and if anyone tries to break in, it’s going to go off really loud.”
“I got in my car, pulled around the corner and bawled my eyes out,” Hanke said. The experience triggered old hurts. As two of the few Black students at their school in Middletown, Hanke and her brother Aaron were the targets of persistent racial bullying growing up.
After that meeting in Skyhawk, she pulled herself together, went back to her office, shredded the contract and made a vow that would change her life and the lives of scores of young people struggling with low self esteem and finding a place in the world. Going forward she would use her photo and full name on all her marketing so people would know exactly who they were dealing with. She had no time for racists.
After she rebranded her company, ARS Roofing, as an African American female-owned business, she found it not only didn’t suffer but prospered, growing from a $2 million company to one with $3.5 million in annual sales.
It wasn’t just the name change, she said, but the change within herself.
“I just started being everywhere. I would do speaking engagements. I said ’I’m not hiding anymore like I was doing in my younger days.’ It’s the best possible thing I could do for myself, and I’m not letting anyone take that away from me ever again.”
The additional income and the transformation that came from her decision to publicly claim who she is led Hanke to create The LIME Foundation. The five-year-old nonprofit offers enrichment programs that serve the disadvantaged in the community across different age groups. She diverts up to 5% of each roofing job to the foundation, which also is supported by small donations and grants.
Her NextGen Trades Academy prepares high school students and young adults for whom college isn’t a fit to enter well-paid jobs in the construction trades. The program focuses on the skills to get a job and partners with contractors in the community to hire the graduates and train them on the job.
Her Turner Arts Initiative (Turner is her maiden name) brings structured activities to disadvantaged youth, giving them the chance to learn technology or play a musical instrument as an alternative to substance abuse, teen pregnancy, truancy, loneliness, obesity, bullying, depression and exclusion. The program aims to offer the kind of enrichment that builds inclusion and self esteem, she said, at time when funding for arts in pubic education is diminishing.
She also sponsors a Senior Activities Program, which promotes healthy eating and exercise for older adults as an antidote to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
“Leticia has a heart as big as all outdoors,” said Jason Krist, an electrical contractor who participates in her trade academy as a speaker and has hired some of its graduates. “She had a lot of challenges growing up. But she brings her own fierce desire to be someone to other kids. I’ve never seen her waver at all. She wants to be a force for good. It sounds kind of corny, but it inspires that feeling in others of us and it’s what those kids need.”
For her enthusiastic and persistent efforts to empower youth, particularly those struggling with poverty, low self esteem and often minimal family support, Hanke has been selected as June’s North Bay Spirit Award winner.
A joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award calls out individuals who go all-in for a cause, often with an organization they created or built themselves that fills an important community need and serves others.