At first, Brenda Palms-Barber thought the concept was absurd when a friend of hers suggested it.
A business model aimed at preserving the honeybee population while providing jobs to ex-cons? But she gave it some thought and then gave it a go.
Palms-Barber started the program in 2004 on the rough and tumble Chicago West Side with $114,000 in seed money from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Since its inception, Sweet Beginnings has employed about 400 ex-cons, nearly all of them African American, most of whom were convicted on drug offenses. Those enrolled in the program work 30 hours a week for 90 days. They are provided job training, credit counseling and a variety of services to help them transition back into society.
“Beekeeping is a profession that is passed on through storytelling or conversation,” Palms-Barber said. No textbooks or degrees required.
The project has enjoyed success on two fronts. Fusion reports:
Graduates of the program have a recidivism rate of only 4%, compared with the national average of 40% and the state average of 55%. Unlike many other social enterprises, Sweet Beginnings is also profitable, bringing in a tidy $9,000 last year.”
That low rate of recidivism is due to the sense of purpose and accomplishment the former prisoners get from the work.
Hundreds of applications pour in every month and Palms-Barber is hoping to expand with a franchise model, first in Washington D.C. and then in Detroit. She also wants to expand the jobs from part-time to full-time.
VonKisha Adams, a 41-year-old ex-con turned beekeeper said, “I used to run from bees. Now I know not to do that. And I’ve learned a lot of skills that I didn’t know I had in me.”
With assistance from the program, Adams composed a resume that netted her a permanent position with the Chicago Transit Authority. She also still works part-time with Sweet Beginnings giving product demonstrations to stores that are considering carrying the products. She’s good at it and rightly proud.
“Coming from the streets, I’ve learned to deal with a lot of types of people,” Adams said.
Another employee getting ready to graduate, Patricia Jackson, said, “My whole outlook on life has changed. Every day I wake up and am glad to come to work.”
Jackson, 35, is planning to launch her own business upon leaving the program: a catering company that will employ local people and use honey in the food she prepares.
Johnny Patterson, 44, said, “I never worked a day in my life. Now I eat honey on everything.”
All of the employees are well aware of colony collapse disorder that has been happening on a widespread basis. They understand that the bee population is directly connected to the food chain.
Christian Petre, a Romanian immigrant, is a professional beekeeper. He teaches the employees about beekeeping and the importance of keeping healthy colonies intact.
“I think God made the bee before us, because all things bees produce are beneficial for us,” he said. “If we continue to destroy the environment, the bee is going to die. And if the bee dies, I think we follow.”
Sweet Beginnings has 131 hives that produce honey – as well as honey-based products like shower gel, body lotions and lip balms. They are sold in stores around the country, as well as a Chicago supermarket chain and about 10 Whole Foods stores.
“When you put that label on the package and you go in the store and see it for yourself, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I produced that!” said Adams. “It makes you proud.”
Ann Werner is the author of thrillers and other things. Visit her at Ann Werner on the Web
H/T to Karin Riley, DUI defense attorney in Virginia Beach. When she’s not defending her clients in court,
Karin loves to sail with her husband. Learn more about her practice.