Chicago program offers ex-convicts a sweet
chance at a new life
By TARA BURGHART, Associated Press Writer Sun Oct 8, 12:19 PM
CHICAGO - Before heading into the yard to work,
Tony Smith pulls over his head a white hooded jacket with stiff
veiled netting that protects his face. He tugs yellow leather
gloves beyond his wrists and makes sure his pants cover the tops
of his tennis shoes. Not the kind of uniform most people wear
to work and certainly nothing like the Illinois Department of
Corrections garb the 30-year-old Smith wore nearly half his life.
Three months after he was paroled, Smith is a beekeeper.
With Sweet Beginnings, a program providing ex-convicts
with work experience and the start of an employment history, Smith
tends to hives and helps produce upscale beauty and consumer products
from the resulting honey. Smith was nervous when he first considered
the job. Now he talks of the importance of the tools of the trade
— he uses a smoker to calm the bees and carries a flat-bladed
tool to pry the hives apart, in addition to wearing his beekeeper
suit. Sporting tattoos on both forearms and diamond hoops in his
ears, he said he can recognize when bees are "having a bad
"The program is a good experience, because
you're learning respect ... You have to get used to the bees'
attitudes and adjust to their emotions," he said. "It's
like dealing with people — you have to learn to respect
their space." As unusual as the beekeeper program is the
spot where the hives are — a scrubby urban lot surrounded
by a chain link fence. It has about as much dirt as grass and
lies just blocks from an expressway. The 18 hives vary in height,
but they each resemble a stack of small dresser drawers. They
are grouped in a semicircle in the lot, and up to 35,000 bees
make their homes there. Sweet Beginnings is located in the North
Lawndale neighborhood, on the city's west side, a spot devastated
by riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther
King Jr. and the closing of large factories and businesses in
the following decade, including International Harvester.
The area has long wrestled with poverty, unemployment,
drugs and crime. The North Lawndale Employment Network —
the nonprofit group behind Sweet Beginnings — hopes to change
that by providing local people with jobs and economic advancement.
The group's executive director, Brenda Palms
Barber, realized that the neighborhood's high unemployment rate
— triple the Chicago average — was directly linked
to the effects of incarceration. Fifty-seven percent of the area's
adults have been involved with the criminal justice system, according
to a report commissioned by the group five years ago.
Ex-convicts can be hard to fit with jobs and
so are often bypassed by social service agencies, Palms Barber
says. By not finding them productive work, she submits, "you
only leave them to go back to their old habits." Hoping to
employ people recently released from prison and to generate income
for the network, she first considered a delivery service but figured
its target consumers, senior citizens, wouldn't want former inmates
in their homes. Then she lunched with a friend who mentioned her
husband's hobby, beekeeping. Suddenly, Palms Barber had an "off
the wall" project that met her criteria: It was inexpensive,
could employ those with little education, and offered transferable
skills — in this case, landscaping, food processing and
retail sales. There was no shortage of vacant lots in North Lawndale.
And she learned that honey produced in cities is valued for its
flavor and texture, given that urban honeybees often have access
to a wider variety of blossoms than their country cousins.
Even in an urban area, there's little danger
to the neighbors, she said, since honeybees are interested in
seeking nectar and pollen, not human interaction. Still, early
concerns were eased by giving out lots of free honey in the area.
And the few times neighbors have blamed Sweet Beginnings for bees
in their back yards, a professional bee keeper was called in and
determined the bees were not honey bees at all, Palms Barber said.
The first batch of honey, labeled Beeline, came
out in 2004. It was a hit at farmer's markets, and a high-end
restaurant created a menu around it. The employment network generated
$30,000 in sales, though organizers found it hard to make much
money in honey. Employees are paid between $7 and $9 an hour.
So for the past two years, Sweet Beginnings has focused on creating
and perfecting "value-added products" containing the
honey from its hives. Also marketed under the Beeline brand, these
include a body scrub, lip balm, lotion and candles.
That change in direction is something Palms
Barber was advised to do by Jennifer Henderson, chairman of the
board at Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., who has volunteered
to help Sweet Beginnings. Also helping have been people who've
worked at Boeing Co., Pepsi Bottling and McDonald's Corp. Return
on investment on honey is 12 percent, but for honey-based personal
products, that return shoots up to 80 percent, Henderson said.
A business plan due in November will include financial projections
for coming years as well as estimates on how many people Sweet
Beginnings might employ, she said. And the products are expected
to be re-launched, with new packaging and formulations in January.
"We have to make sure the product is excellent, but also
make sure the numbers work. And make sure the social mission happens
and the story gets out and builds goodwill in the public —
creating a consumer base," Henderson said. Those employed
by Sweet Beginnings first go through a program called U-Turn Permitted,
which offers them job readiness training, mentoring support and
classes in such subjects as anger management. Seventeen ex-convicts
have completed the program since 2004. None has returned to prison.
This year's harvest is already under way, with each of the hives
expected to produce about 65 to 70 pounds of honey. On a recent
warm day, three Sweet Beginnings workers were painting the hive
boxes a pleasant light green color, an upgrade from their dull
mix of gray, white and yellow. Joining Tony Smith, who served
time for home invasion and armed robbery, was Shelby Gallion,
a 22-year-old fresh out of a nine-month prison stint on drug charges,
and 49-year-old Gerald Whitehead. Out of prison now for nearly
nine years, Whitehead had spent most of his adult life behind
bars for everything from robbery to assault. This day, the three
moved among the hives, scattering the bees with smoke. They explained
how they encourage sluggish hives with the addition of a queen
bee and sugar water. Whitehead used a flat-bladed tool to pry
loose one of the hives' frames, exposing the butter-colored wax
that sealed the honey.
He noted he's working in the same area where
he once ran with gangs. That led to prison, and when he got out
his record as an ex-con made it hard to keep jobs. Also holding
him back was his inability to read and write. He used to take
his wife along on job interviews so she could fill out applications.
Now he's taking literacy classes and hopes to land a job working
with his hands, such as plumbing or landscaping. Noting he once
didn't expect to live this long, Whitehead turns reflective.
"At one time, I'd see a bee and kill it.
Now I've got love for bees," he said. "They got a language
of their own, they know when to mate, they know when to feed each
other, they know when to be aggressive. They know when someone's
invading their territory, so they know how to defend themselves.
They're sort of like people in the streets."