I went back to the Chicago suburb of North Lawndale today to do my "on camera," for tonight's story. All our equipment caught the eye of two young boys, soon to be 7th graders. One was shy, but curious. The other was openly eager to see what we were doing, how we did it, but mostly when would it come on TV. I kept hearing the words I was saying to the camera through the ears of these kids. About "how in this community of 45,000, 1 in 4 is unemployed, 6 in 10 people have had run-ins with the law." Many of those have served time and end up right back in North Lawndale and unemployable, which often leads to more crime and the cycle continues. And I wondered what effect does that have on impressionable 12- and 13-year-olds growing up here.
When Brenda Palms-Barber came to head the North Lawndale Employment Network seven years ago she wanted to break the cycle. She needed to find a way to give men and women coming out of jail a job history. But it wasn't easy. It's hard enough to find work in a depressed neighborhood, but especially for people "with a past," and no real job skills.
Her first few ideas didn't fly. One plan called for getting ex-cons jobs as delivery men, but she then realized no one would want these guys coming to their door. Then, over lunch one day, a friend of hers mentioned beekeeping as a hobby, and a light bulb went off in Brenda's head. Her friend explained that this job is passed on by word of mouth, it doesn't require special skills, doesn't even require a person be able to read and write.
After researching bees and honey Brenda decided to give it a try. She started Sweet Beginnings soon after with a group of 10 men. Much to their surprise, former gang members, drug dealers, and thieves found themselves in protective clothing tending to bees and harvesting honey. They bottled the honey and took it to flea markets. They were surprised to learn that urban honey tastes different -- better, some say -- than other kinds. That's because urban bees travel to all kinds of flowers, not any one kind.
Buyers loved the honey, but like the story behind it even more. That was three years ago. Now the group has expanded its product line to include lip balm, a sugar exfoliant, and hand cream. Brenda admits the original products weren't very good and she sought advice. Now Sweet Beginnings puts its products up against any others on the market. They are available on line at this website.
So far 27 men have been through the three-month Sweet Beginnings program and have gone on to other jobs, primarily in the manufacturing sector. Along the way they learned critical skills, such as how to be on-time to a job, how to take instruction and criticism, and how to present themselves.
For 49-year-old Gerald Whitehead, a former drug dealer and Vice Lord, who has been in and out of jail since he was a teenager, this is the second chance he never thought he would have. He's learning to read and write, has his own apartment, and dreams of living a normal life. He blames his past on a failed upbringing and a school system that never came looking for him when he dropped out in elementary school. As with many lost children, gang life -in his case the Vice Lords - gave him a family he'd never had. He began dealing drugs and got caught. But now as he cares for the bees he sees a parallel between their lives and his. You have to have a place in society and work is key to survival.
These days as the two youngsters bike past Sweet Beginnings rather than seeing ex-cons on the street, they see men at work. Men with a past building a future.