A Chicago woman has built a business out of not only helping the environment, but helping to create a bright and positive future for ex-cons.
Brenda Palms-Barber has created a unique program that accomplishes two noble goals—helping troubled honeybee populations and helping ex-cons stay out of jail.
Sweet Beginnings, located in Chicago’s West Side, is a social enterprise business that turns former prisoners into beekeepers. This interaction with some of our most important friends in the natural world has a striking success rate.
According to FUSION:
“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.”
The company does not even have enough jobs to satisfy the hundreds of people that show up asking every month. But Palms-Barber is looking to expand on the concept with a franchise model, spreading first to D.C. and Detroit.
As of now, the part-time jobs last 90 days, but that is enough to foster inspiration.
“My whole outlook on life has changed,” said Patricia Jackson. ”Every day I wake up, I am glad to come to work.”
Jackson hopes to open her own catering company when she is through with the program, using the honey in her food and hiring community members.
VonKisha Adams used to run from bees, but now she has affection for the busy critters creating their liquid gold, which contributes to her own newfound motivation to work.
“I could stand here for hours, extracting, just in my zone. The cycle continues. We’re like the worker bees,” said Adams. “It’s a fun working environment. We’re like a family. You shouldn’t be afraid of the honeybee. She won’t sting you for no reason. She’s vegan. She’s only interested in transferring nectar so the colony can survive.”
While giving ex-cons a purpose, the beekeeping program also teaches about the ongoing problem of colony collapse disorder and the risk it poses to the global food chain.
“I think God made the bee before us, because all things bees produce are beneficial for us,” said Christian Petre, another employee. “If we continue to destroy the environment, the bee is going to die. And if the bee dies, I think we follow.”
Most of the 400 employees who have worked there were convicted of drug offenses. They work in all parts of the process, from tending the bees to extracting and bottling the products to shipping them to stores. Other parts of the program help them get their lives back on track.
The 131 hives of Sweet Beginnings produces delicious local honey as well as other products with a higher profit margin, such as shower gel, lotion, and lip balm. They are shipped around the country but also sell at a local supermarket chain and about 10 Whole Foods stores.
This incredible venture is providing much-needed aid to increasingly beleaguered honeybee populations and promoting the vitality of agriculture. The fact that it sharply reduces recidivism is equally important. Sweet Beginnings also shows the value—both monetary and spiritual—of creating something under a free market approach.
“When you put that label on the package and you go in the store and see it on the shelf, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I produced that,’” said Adams. “It makes you proud.”