Henry Edwards, the 500th hire at Sweet Beginnings. Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago

HOMAN SQUARE — Henry Edwards works with bees.

On some days he dons a white protective suit with a veil to cover his face and thick rubbery gloves to tend the beehives and check on their production of beeswax and honey.

The beeswax is worked into silky smooth chapsticks and luscious body balms. With the sweet natural honey, he filters it and uses it to make sugar scrubs and body butters. Each day, Edwards fills jars with the raw honey and honey-infused skincare products, labels them and packages them for shipping.

It’s tricky work because he’s fresh to the bee business.

Edwards just started as the 500th employee with Sweet Beginnings, a social enterprise that employs people returning from incarceration. The program builds work experience and entrepreneurship skills through working with bees and creating all-natural bee products under the beelove brand.

“It give me a purpose for getting up in the morning now,” Edwards said, adding that he likes working with his hands. “So it’s something different, and you learn something about bees all the time here.”

Chapstick produced by Sweet Beginnings employees. Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago

Hiring its 500th employee is a major milestone for Sweet Beginnings, which is a subsidiary of the workforce development nonprofit North Lawndale Employment Network. Each worker is brought on for full-time transitional jobs that helps them build up a resume while also working to place them in a permanent job after Sweet Beginnings.

“Our recidivism rates continue to be solid and strong. We have 61 distribution partners now, so that’s nice growth,” said Brenda Palms Barber, the founder and CEO of Sweet Beginnings and the North Lawndale Employment Network. “I’m pretty excited about it.”

Brenda Palms Barber

Across the state of Illinois, 43 percent of recently incarcerated people are convicted and sent back to prison within three years of release, according to a study by the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. But for the folks working at Sweet Beginnings, the recidivism rate shoots down to as low as four percent.

Edwards explained that he had been in and out of prison because once he had a criminal record, it was nearly impossible to find job opportunities and stability in his life.

On top of that, Edwards struggled to deal with the trauma and depression in his life caused first by his incarceration, then the subsequent loss of his brother and then his mother.

“I had changed my life and just … then it just spiraled out of control. I really can’t explain it but it just went crazy from there. I was out for a good five and a half years before I got in trouble again,” Edwards said. 

Edwards was skeptical of the program at first. But he said working to make bee products helps him learn to do new things every day, and participating in the North Lawndale Employment Network workshops allowed him to build his resume, learn anger management strategies and improve his financial literacy skills.

In the time since he’s been working with Sweet Beginnings, Edwards has noticed personal growth in his ability to be a team player. He is used to working alone and relying on himself to get the job done, but he said the job taught him “how to talk to people and, you know, kick up a conversation … motivate them and move them along.”

Sweet Beginnings is slated to continue its trajectory of growth with the company planning to move into a bigger space at 1111 S. Homan Ave. as part of a move by North Lawndale Employment Network to bring all its programs into one building that will have a set of beehives on the roof. The move will give the program more space to increase its production and better coordinate with the parent organization’s broader umbrella of workforce development opportunities.

Sweet Beginnings’ beelove products can be found at grocery stores including Mariano’s, the Sugar Beet, the Dill Pickle Food Co-Op and Whole Foods.

Sweet Beginnings offers full-time transitional jobs to returning in the production and sales of all-natural skin care products, BeeLove. Credit: Sarah Conway/City Bureau

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.