On the West Side of Chicago, honey bees have become a beacon of hope for former inmates.

James Jones was released from prison in February after serving three and a half years for selling drugs.

“I had a vision for my future the day I got out,” said Jones. “I want to get my driver’s license, maybe drive a truck for a few years until I can buy or lease one of my own. Then I want to start my own trucking company.”

For now, the 34-year-old is living in a halfway house and training for a job he never would have imagined before – handling bees.

Jones was hired by Sweet Beginnings, a honey-infused skin care products maker, in May. The business manages five bee farms throughout the greater Chicago area, including one at O’Hare International Airport. The company’s Beelove line is sold at Chicago’s airports and in dozens of grocery and natural products stores in the city.

Sweet Beginnings hires former inmates and trains them to become beekeepers and produce honey-infused products.

Sweet Beginnings offers full-time, transitional jobs to previously incarcerated individuals like Jones, who need help reintegrating into society. The new hires are trained to become beekeepers and learn about harvesting honey, production, filling orders, packaging, shipping and selling.

“I’m excited that someone is giving me a chance,” said Jones. “I’ve never had a job before. I don’t have a resume. Someone with my background probably wouldn’t get a job easily. Now I am making a resume.”

Helping to keep people out of prison

Brenda Palms Barber founded Sweet Beginnings in North Lawndale, Chicago, in 2005.

North Lawndale is a community beset with high unemployment, crime and incarceration. Barber sought to provide the workplace skills former inmates needed to rebuild their lives.

Brenda Palms Barber founded Sweet Beginnings in 2005.

“The typical reaction we get when [former inmates] come to us is ‘What?,’” said Barber. “They don’t believe we are a real business until they see the products in stores. Then they realize they’re being hired by a real company and it boosts their self-esteem.”

Since its launch, the business has hired nearly 500 workers, providing them with a 90-day employment and training program and a starting wage of $10 an hour. Since the program has started, she said less than 4% of the workers have returned to prison.

The company's Beelove brand of honey and skincare products are sold at O'Hare International Airport and grocery stores throughout Chicago.

It’s a vast improvement on the estimated 68% of former state prisoners who are arrested within three years of release, according to a study by the Justice Department about recidivism rates in 30 US states between 2005 and 2014.

Sweet Beginnings, in partnership with other local job placement efforts and the city, also helps its workers find other permanent work. “And we have an 85% job placement rate for our former employees,” said Barber.

Despite being a social enterprise, Barber said Sweet Beginnings is a for-profit company.

“We are a market-driven solution to the issue of mass incarceration in this country,” she said. “We average about $20,000 in sales a month and $60,000 a month during the holiday season. We have seasons of profitability, but we aim to be a sustainable company in the long-term.”

Chicago needed its own honey

North Lawndale was once home to Sears’ headquarters. In the early to mid-20th century, it was a thriving community.

“When the economy here was good, we had a Western Electric plant and a Sunbeam factory,” said Michael Scott, a Chicago alderman representing North Lawndale. “As many as 125,000 people resided here. Basically anyone who wanted a job could get one.”

But over the past 50 years, racial tensions spurred families and businesses to leave, including Sears. Its population has since shrunk to 35,000.

Sweet Beginnings hires ex-inmates for a 90-day employment and job training program.

As jobs disappeared, unemployment and crime took over. Unemployment currently stands at 21.7% and nearly 27% of the population doesn’t have a high school diploma.

“Our studies indicate that more than 50% of adults in this neighborhood over the age of 21 have been involved with the criminal justice system,” said Barber, who is also executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), a nonprofit workforce development initiative.

Sweet Beginnings hires people through a program called U-Turn Permitted, a four-week job readiness course for people with a criminal background. The course successfully trained the former inmates, Barber said, but often failed to help them find employment.

“The problem was that no employer wanted to hire people with a criminal record. It was devastating,” she said.

So Barber decided to hire them herself.

She was struggling to come up with a business idea until a friend suggested she meet with some beekeepers.

The business manages five bee farms throughout the Chicago area, including one at O'Hare International Airport.

“I went and I said, that’s it,” said Barber. “This was a job our people could be successful at. It requires discipline, getting up every day, learning a skill, working with a team, managing conflict. Plus, Chicago needs its own brand of honey.”

Barber launched the business in 2005 with $140,000 in funding from the Illinois Department of Corrections and $200,000 in grants from the city. Since then, Sweet Beginnings has also won $500,000 in funding from Citi Foundation and a $400,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

In early 2020, Sweet Beginnings will move into a 20,000 square-foot building, complete with a rooftop bee farm and a cafe selling honey-infused drinks.

“We’ve grown to a point where we are in five locations and there are inefficiencies,” said Barber. “We are missing the visible impact of our work in the community, so we are bringing our programs, our production all under one roof.”

‘They’ve taught me to be a new me’

Charlotte Austin, 50, is production manager at Sweet Beginnings and oversees a team of six.

She spent 20 years in prison for bank robbery.I grew up in Chicago on the South Side. When I was released I came back to Chicago to be with my kids and my family,” she said.

Her sister told her about Sweet Beginnings and Austin was hired in 2017. “I was fascinated. I love everything about nature,” said Austin.

After she finished the 90-day training program, the company gave her a permanent job, earning $12 an hour.

“It’s a wonderful feeling that someone believes in me. I’ve learned social skills, computer skills, how to manage people,” she said. “They’ve taught me to be a new me instead of the old me.”

Workers who successfully complete the U-Turn Permitted program are eligible to be hired by Sweet Beginnings.

North Lawndale alderman Scott said he’s grateful for the impact Sweet Beginnings has had. “Sweet Beginnings is creating an industry we never had here and placing people into jobs so they can turn their lives around,” he said.

His own chief of staff was a former inmate who had gone through the U-Turn Permitted program.

“I met him 15 years ago. We both coached football back then. He was an average African American man who went down the wrong path,” said Scott. “But he came out and went through the job training program, twice. Now he is my chief of staff and gives back to the community. That’s why these efforts matter.”