In this difficult economy, it’s tough enough to find a job. Now imagine if you have “ex-convict” on your resume. Five years ago, the non-profit North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) founded Sweet Beginnings, a wholly owned (for profit) subsidiary designed to create jobs for formerly incarcerated individual and others with significant barriers to employment. Today, Sweet Beginnings, makers of Beeline products, employs seven to ten transitional employees and two semi-permanent Team Leaders at any given time.
This is no ordinary jobs program. You see, Sweet Beginnings runs apiaries. That’s right, beehives. And raising bees is not the only unusual thing about them. These beehives are located at the airport, the only airport apiaries in the country. So, does this make O’Hare the world’s Buzziest airport, too? (sorry) I hereby officially declare, Yes, it does.
Holly Blackwell, General Manager of Sweet Beginnings, says they have three apiary sites in Chicago. Their first was in North Lawndale. A second, for education and honey purposes, was built at Wright College. The apiary at O’Hare came about, she says, when they were approached by several parties from the Chicago Department of Aviation, who had an interest in “urban” beekeeping, sustainability and in NLEN’s social mission to create jobs. “We found the intersection of environmental consciousness, a way to expand our beekeeping capacities, strong partnerships with a world-class organization, and the potential for more jobs creation to be exceptionally compelling,” Blackwell says, adding that although O’Hare is the first US airport to host an apiary, Germany has led the way in the practice, using the bee colonies onsite to test for air quality.
At Sweet Beginnings, employees learn to take care of the bees and harvest the honey, which is then either sold as is, or used in its all-natural line of skincare products called Beeline. The Beeline products include body creams, lotions and balms and body washes. They’re all made at their North Lawndale location on the city’s west side and then packaged and shipped or delivered throughout Chicagoland and around the country. They’ve even placed orders as far away as Australia! (Could Beeline Honey eventually replace vegemite!?! Having tried vegemite, I personally think it should.)
Every potential Sweet Beginnings employees must first participate in the NLEN’s U-Turn Permitted program , where they learn and sharpen skills they’ll need to find, keep and perhaps even use to successfully leave a job. The U-Turn Permitted participants take a one-month workforce readiness class and prospective employees of Sweet Beginnings are taken from this pool for interviews.
One Sweet Beginnings employee said of the program, “I gained a lot of different experiences and gained knowledge of something I thought I would never be doing, but I know I will be able to take this experience and use (it) in other jobs and life. It’s a great start for me to get back on my feet and begin working again and take a positive step forward towards my future. My family is very proud of me for getting this job, so thank you.”
You can find Beeline products in fine shops, at the Peninsula Hotel, Whole Foods and, of course, at O’Hare airport. There’s some buzz (sorry) that Beeline is looking to possibly open another apiary at Midway Airport. I would even go so far as to suggest Northerly Island, so at least something would be flying at the site that was formerly Meigs Field.
The incidents of reoffending for ex-convicts is 65% nationally and 55% in Illinois, yet the rate of recidivism for employees of Sweet Beginnings is less than four percent. And as far as statistics for success go, that’s sweet.