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Difference Maker

Brenda Palms Barber offers ex-cons in Chicago a honey of a second chance

Sweet Beginnings, a growing business on Chicago's West Side, provides just released prisoners with job experience making honey and other products.

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The idea caused Barber to step back, perplexed. She knew nothing about bees other than their sting. But she was desperate for something to rejuvenate the job prospects in an area mainly known for its homicide rate and open-air drug markets.

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So, against the odds, it happened. A feasibility study and $140,000 in seed money from the Illinois Department of Corrections helped create a business plan and buy bees, hives, bee suits, and other equipment.

Funding Sweet Beginnings "was the best investment [the Illinois Department of Corrections] has ever made," says Deanne Benos, the agency's assistant director at the time. Ms. Benos says Sweet Beginnings has become "one of the pioneering businesses of its kind in the country" because of Barber's insistence that it rewards hard work.

The first harvest at Sweet Beginnings in 2007 delivered honey to farmers' markets. Most people who purchased the honey had never been to the neighborhood where it had been produced. "Will they buy honey from the West Side of Chicago? [The area] certainly has a reputation out there, and it's not about anything sweet or good," Barber says she wondered at the time. "But we found that people didn't care where it came from. They cared that it was tasty and delicious and local."

Since then, Sweet Beginnings has expanded its operation to also produce all-natural skin care products such as lip balm, soap, shower gel, and body lotion.

If that sounds like Sweet Beginnings must require a small army of workers and warehouse space, think again. Twenty-eight hives sit in the backyard of the organization's small building, which once operated as a children's day-care center. Each October the honey is harvested. It's extracted and processed by equipment sitting on an enclosed porch, and the products are bottled, labeled, and boxed in a similarly cramped room next door. Storage is in the basement.

About seven to 10 workers are on staff at a time, Barber says. Once they complete the NLEN's job-readiness program, they are hired for $8.25 per hour and assigned to positions ranging from beekeeping to production or sales and are required to stay on the job for 90 days.

"We can see how they perform, coach them on the job, and then we can stand by them when it comes to presenting them to employers that my business team has cultivated," Barber says. "What's also really cool is that by having these guys working in an apiary for bees, it shifts the interview conversation from 'what you did badly that landed you in prison' to 'what's it like to work with bees?' It shifts the whole focus away from the past and [to] more about the future."

Amid the hives, swatting away the occasional bee, stands the model success story for Sweet Beginnings. Kelvin Greenwood, the organization's assistant general manager, was hired in November 2008 after spending seven years in state prison starting at age 17.

"I said I wanted to do something positive when I came out," Mr. Greenwood says. "I did too many years in jail to go back." Today, he supervises the staff, deals with wholesale distributors, and manages hives in North Lawndale as well as in three other locations, including 50 hives at O'Hare International Airport.

The experience has boosted his self-esteem and his pocketbook: He now is renting his first apartment and has repaired his credit rating. His goal: to open a sports-themed barbershop.

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