When John Ricasa returned from an 18-month prison sentence in 2015, he searched for work relentlessly but was soon discouraged. “Everywhere I went the door was slammed on me,” he recalled. “I was applying for jobs I wouldn’t have taken in high school. Walmart wouldn’t hire me.”

His luck turned when a friend told him about North Lawndale Employment Network, a nonprofit that has helped thousands of people returning from incarceration find jobs, continue their education, and build their financial skills.

Emerging from the trauma of incarceration, “North Lawndale Employment Network gave me a full new sense of me,” Ricasa said. “When we start talking about goals, writing a resume, how to dress, you’re talking about life again.”

“The need to create programs specifically for residents with criminal records became evident soon after Steans Family Foundation helped to launch the North Lawndale Employment Network in 1999,” said Brenda Palms, who has served as the organization’s chief executive officer from the beginning. At the time, few organizations wanted to work with people with prior justice system involvement because employers were not interested in hiring them, she recalled. “It was stunning to see the outpouring of the need of people with criminal records who couldn’t find a job.”

She realized that people leaving prison needed a short-term program to learn and demonstrate real job skills. She and her board brainstormed “a lot of really bad ideas” for small businesses, she recalled. (Landscaping—but what would be their competitive advantage? A grocery delivery service—but would customers want people with histories of criminal convictions to come to their homes?) But then one board member mentioned a friend who was a beekeeper. Could that be an idea for business?

Sometimes, the most far-fetched ideas turn out to be winners.

Today Sweet Beginnings, LLC sells raw organic honey and honey-infused products like lotions and lip balms at farmers markets, gift shops at Brookfield Zoo and Lincoln Park Zoo, and Mariano’s and Whole Foods grocery stores, among other locations. During a 90-day transitional jobs program, participants earn a minimum wage while learning not only beekeeping, but also how to manage inventory, process online orders, interact with customers, and produce beelove™ products according to specifications. Along the way, they earn professional certifications for food handling, forklift operation, and Microsoft Office.

Sadie Joseph, who was referred by her parole officer, entered Sweet Beginnings after completing a 25-year prison sentence. She remembered the thrill of heading a sample table at Mariano’s.

“To see someone buy a product I'd helped make, put in jars, and label was amazing to me," she said. "It was like, 'Wow, I did this.' That's an experience I'll never forget."

Finding A Path Forward

Each new client at the North Lawndale Employment Network sits down with a coach for an intake interview that identifies their needs and interests. One-on-one services include financial coaching to boost savings and credit scores and employment coaching to develop a plan that may include further education. All clients get wrap-around services to cover any immediate needs such as food vouchers, work clothing, or help obtaining identification.

Those with a felony conviction first complete the U-Turns Permitted program, which includes anger management, basic computer skills, resume writing, and job interviewing.

Ricasa said he appreciated learning how to talk about a criminal record to a potential employer while keeping the focus on his personal growth and aspirations: “I realize the error of my ways and want to be valuable in our society and an example to my children.”

Those who successfully complete U-Turns can choose to work at Sweet Beginnings. Beyond job skills and certifications, employees also learn soft skills. Workers also get a chance to confront emotional obstacles that might derail them from employment, learn from those mistakes, and try again.

Leah Holmes, production manager and trainer at Sweet Beginnings, said that some employees feel attacked by constructive criticism or embarrassed when they do not understand directions. “The first thing is just to reassure them that we are here to help and that it’s a learning ground,” Holmes explained. Workers learn, for example, that criticism is not personal—it is meant to help them reach a standard the company needs to be successful. “Sometimes it’s a matter of telling an employee, ‘Take five minutes and clear your head and let’s start fresh.’”

Most Sweet Beginnings graduates quickly find jobs and few ever re-enter the criminal justice system, with a recidivism rate of only 8%. Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Corrections reports a three-year recidivism rate of over 36%.

Reaching Big Goals

North Lawndale Employment Network builds relationships with employers willing to hire those with barrier to employment. Many jobs are in landscaping, maintenance, retail, and food service. Some are with local nonprofits.

Joseph landed a job with a local violence prevention program where she helped at-risk young adults secure state I.D.s and enroll in public benefits. But that job was not the end of her relationship with North Lawndale Employment Network. Coaches provide three years of follow-up support to help clients achieve long-term goals. “I wanted to go to school, I wanted to buy a car, and I wanted to be a homeowner. I met all three of those goals,” said Joseph, who returned to North Lawndale Employment Network years later as a coach.

Ricasa found a job with the same violence prevention program leading a crew of youth who cleared sites of litter. After more than a year, he moved on to work for Lawndale Christian Legal Center as a case manager.

“Words cannot express my gratitude to North Lawndale Employment Network for the opportunity to re-prove myself,” Ricasa said. “All I want to do is take care of my family. That’s what I was striving for. And they afforded me the opportunity to do that.”