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.

Courtesy of David Harold Ropinksi/Sweet Beginnings
Brenda Palms Barber's honey-products program has hired 275 ex-offenders since 2007. After 90 days, they shift to the outside workforce.

"Pollinate" is a word that Brenda Palms Barber likes to throw around when talking to people about her work.

She pollinates jobs for recently released inmates looking for a second chance. She pollinates faith among the people who take a chance in hiring them. She pollinates an upswing in North Lawndale, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago, about five miles west of downtown.

She also pollinates honey. At least that's the job of the bees she has spent five years raising.

Indeed, Ms. Barber has brought swarms of bees to the city's West Side, using them to foster job creation among a stigmatized group of people who live on the bottom rung of the economic ladder: black males who exit the state or county prison system with little formal education or job skills.

While job creation is the hot topic of the national presidential campaign, it's very likely that neither major-party candidate would consider framing the issue around helping ex-offenders get straight. That is why Barber felt it was important to start a program that created jobs and job skills for the most marginalized people in her community.

"We have to be their first employers," she says. "We have to prove to society that people who did bad things, people who need second chances, can be positive in the workplace, that they will be loyal and hard-working and honest employees."

So far the numbers are working in her favor: Sweet Beginnings has hired 275 ex-offenders since 2007. After working there for 90 days, they transition to the outside workforce, where they hunt for jobs in sectors such as manufacturing, customer service, and food service. According to its records, Sweet Beginnings has a prison recidivism rate among its employees of about 4 percent – far below the national and state averages of 65 percent and 55 percent respectively.

Barber arrived in Chicago after lengthy stints in Tucson, Ariz., and Denver, where she worked with nonprofit groups involved in empowering low-income Latina women and economic development. Her record led the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), a not-for-profit agency tasked with fostering job creation on Chicago's West Side, to take notice: It offered her the job of executive director in 1999.

Barber immediately began trying to understand why unemployment was so high in that section of Chicago – 26 percent, according to NLEN. The median household income was only $18,342, according to 2010 US Census data.

"It was prison," Barber discovered. "This community was impacted by mass incarceration: 57 percent of adults had a criminal background. I realized we can't do workforce development in this community without developing programming that reintegrates these guys back into the community."

Enter the bees. NLEN began hunting for ways to teach job skills that could carry through to the outside world. A board member suggested beekeeping.

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.

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.

"I don't consider myself an ex-felon. I look at myself as a tax-paying citizen," he says.

Sweet Beginnings products are available online and in 35 Whole Foods stores across the Midwest, Mark Shale boutique stores, and from the grocery delivery service Peapod. They will soon be in Hudson News outlets at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports. The company rings up about $100,000 in annual sales today, with a projection of $2 million in five years.

Despite its humble location in North Lawndale, amid empty lots of rubble and the hum of Interstate 290 a block away, the beekeeping concept will likely expand to other cities, particularly Denver and Boston, which are interested "in pollinating the model," Barber says.

While she lights up when thinking about the future possibilities of her start-up business, what really makes Barber buzz is reaching out to local companies – from grocery stores to a five-star hotel in downtown – to establish relationships that help her beekeeping staff transition to full-time employment elsewhere.

"We are creating more jobs. That's what brings me incredible joy," she says. "Just awesome, over-the-top, out-of-chair joy – just joy."

•For more:

Job and literacy programs you can help

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

UniversalGiving recommends:

Christian Care Foundation for Children with Disabilities’ Rainbow Vocational Training Center provides disabled adults with vocational training to give them skills in order to apply for jobs. Project: Help fund the Rainbow Vocational Training Center.

KickStart creates opportunities for poor, rural, entrepreneurial farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to make money. Project: Help one person out of poverty.

Literacy Partners Inc., a nonprofit group, provides free community-based literacy programs to ensure that all adults have access to the education needed to realize their potential. Project: Volunteer as an adult literacy reading and writing tutor.

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