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Brenda Palms Barber offers ex-cons in Chicago a honey of a second chance

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Funding Sweet Beginnings "was the best investment [the Illinois Department of Corrections] has ever made," says Deanne Benos, the agency's assistant director at the time. Ms. Benos says Sweet Beginnings has become "one of the pioneering businesses of its kind in the country" because of Barber's insistence that it rewards hard work.

The first harvest at Sweet Beginnings in 2007 delivered honey to farmers' markets. Most people who purchased the honey had never been to the neighborhood where it had been produced. "Will they buy honey from the West Side of Chicago? [The area] certainly has a reputation out there, and it's not about anything sweet or good," Barber says she wondered at the time. "But we found that people didn't care where it came from. They cared that it was tasty and delicious and local."

Since then, Sweet Beginnings has expanded its operation to also produce all-natural skin care products such as lip balm, soap, shower gel, and body lotion.

If that sounds like Sweet Beginnings must require a small army of workers and warehouse space, think again. Twenty-eight hives sit in the backyard of the organization's small building, which once operated as a children's day-care center. Each October the honey is harvested. It's extracted and processed by equipment sitting on an enclosed porch, and the products are bottled, labeled, and boxed in a similarly cramped room next door. Storage is in the basement.

About seven to 10 workers are on staff at a time, Barber says. Once they complete the NLEN's job-readiness program, they are hired for $8.25 per hour and assigned to positions ranging from beekeeping to production or sales and are required to stay on the job for 90 days.

"We can see how they perform, coach them on the job, and then we can stand by them when it comes to presenting them to employers that my business team has cultivated," Barber says. "What's also really cool is that by having these guys working in an apiary for bees, it shifts the interview conversation from 'what you did badly that landed you in prison' to 'what's it like to work with bees?' It shifts the whole focus away from the past and [to] more about the future."

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