People

Sustainable Bee Hives Help Former Inmates Thrive

December 9, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

Formerly incarcerated individuals have a much harder time finding jobs than most of us—many potential employers see a “checked box” and immediately veto their application, even if their crimes are low-level offenses.

Kind of like the way many of us react when we see a bee heading our way.

Fortunately, a company called Bee Love is buzzing with second chances.

Sweet Beginnings, a Chicago-based sustainable social enterprise, was initially created to help train people in overcrowded prisons for jobs; but training only gets you so far when the barriers to employment are all but iron-clad.

Because it is often so tough for people to successfully “rehabilitate” and reintegrate themselves into society, they decided to create and employ these individuals to churn out hundreds of thousands of pounds of raw honey, some of which is used to make beauty and healthcare products. They currently employ 3 permanent and 4-10 transitional positions per quarter, offering far more than just a gateway to employment.

“I’ve witnessed people who felt genuinely hopeless due to constant rejection finally see themselves as whole,” said Executive Director Brenda Palms-Barber. “I’ve seen a mother regain custody of her children after serving time, and I’ve seen people regain their self-worth.”

It’s not your average person who is willing to work with buzzing, stinging insects every day, but with a true desire for change comes a desire to set aside fears in hopes of making a new beginning: so people put on their protective gear and got to work at one of the five apiaries located through the city.

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Patricia, 34, previously made $1,500 per week selling drugs in the North Lawndale neighborhood where she grew up as a teenager. The youngest of 13 children, Patricia wanted things that her mother, a single parent, couldn’t afford to give her.

Arrested for the first time at age 16 and imprisoned at 18, she swore she’d never go back to jail once her sentence was over. But she struggled to find work after that—and to support her two young children. Too ashamed to ask people for help, she stole instead what they needed instead, was arrested for retail theft, and returned to jail.

Now, she’s learning entrepreneurship skills through Self Employment Pathways for Women that Bee Love collaborates with, and studying for her GED. She has even presented her own personal business plan to seven Chicago-area business leaders.

“I felt like I was on Shark Tank,” she said. “I think I knocked it out of the park. They were really interested.”

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Her business? From Sweet Beginnings, it seems, will come “Heavenly Creations,” a restaurant that will offer soul food as well as healthy salads, as well as respect for its customers.

Emily, a convicted felon and repeat offender for possession and delivery, is now responsible for inventory, packing, shipping and receiving at Bee Love, and, on some days,  a team leader.

“I always try to focus on the next day and prepare for work,” she said. “It makes me feel proud and powerful just knowing I can come to work here.”

Formerly homeless, she says that she thought she might never get out of it.

“This program uplifts you,” she said. “You are seen as being worth more than just the crimes you committed.”

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Despite their inner-city dwellings, the bees have plenty of places to pollinate, making the unfortunate conditions of, say, an abandoned garden a breeding ground for sweetness.

“Yellow jackets are predators who are also carnivores. Honey bees are vegan and naturally attracted to sugar,” she explains. “The only reason they would ever approach a human is because of something sweet. So, really it is about creating a safe space for the honey bees rather than being afraid that they will attack.” 

The sustainability component of the business is also crucial: colony collapse disorder (CCD) continues to be an environmental threat to honey bees, and the cause is primarily pesticides, which, naturally, they don’t use. 

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Even better, they’re good to the bees, too: taking only half of the honey for products and in order to leave them with an ample sustainable food supply.

The ripple effect of their positive impact continues to spread from there.

“The city of Chicago has stronger and healthier families and citizens because of the work we do,” said Palms-Barber. “With a stronger community, we can assume that there is also a decrease in criminal activity and violence.”

To date, Sweet Beginnings has employed nearly 460 men and women since being founded in 2005, and Bee Love, anticipates producing 2,000 pounds of honey from their five urban apiaries by end of year.

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