Heroes

There's a big beehive at O'Hare Airport. It's keeping people out of jail.

Sweet Beginnings helps the environment and provides jobs. What a win-win.

The Chicago O'Hare Airport ground crew is used to dealing with nature. They de-ice planes in the winter and roll over steaming hot runways in the summer.

As hearty Chicagoans, they felt ready for anything nature might send their way — that is, until a swarm of honeybees decided to perch near a flight gate one sunny afternoon.


That looks like a bundle of joy. Photo via iStock.

The crew mulled over a few ideas for dealing with the buzzing mass of bees, including spraying them with a hose or dousing them with pesticides. But before any of these ideas could be put into action, the Sweet Beginnings team arrived, scooping up the swarm and its queen bee and whisking it away to be installed in a new hive.

The Sweet Beginnings team maintains 75 beehives in a remote field on the O'Hare property.

The program was initially created as job training for individuals returning from incarceration or with other barriers to employment.

The Sweet Beginnings team unveils hives on the grounds of O'Hare Airport, the largest airport apiary in the U.S. Photo provided by Sweet Beginnings, used with permission.

Aided by a local beekeeper and several environmental and social organizations, the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) launched Sweet Beginnings in 2004. Their clientele began learning how to care for honeybees, extract and package honey, and infuse the honey into soaps and lotions.

By 2014, the enterprise had 131 hives throughout Chicago.

Better yet, the program had trained 383 people in beekeeping, honey production, packaging, distribution logistics, and marketing.

Sweet Beginnings trainees learn everything from beekeeping to packaging, food safety to ecological awareness. Photo provided by Sweet Beginnings, used with permission.

In 2014 alone, Sweet Beginnings added 50 new hives, harvested over 1,600 pounds of honey, and employed 19 individuals (all of whom avoided reincarceration). That last measure, called the recidivism rate (or a relapse into criminal behavior) is a key performance indicator for Sweet Beginnings.

NLEN tracks recidivism meticulously and has shown that former Sweet Beginnings employees have a recidivism rate of below 10%. Compare that to the U.S. recidivism rate of 40% and the 55% rate in Illinois!

It's difficult to find work in the United States if you've been incarcerated or have a criminal background.

The formerly incarcerated often fall back on selling drugs or other illegal means of making money. Plus, the law enforcement and criminal justice systems tend to disproportionally target people of color and low-income communities.

So while recent books like "The New Jim Crow" are raising awareness of this issue, NLEN and Sweet Beginnings are the boots on the ground, putting forth a positive tale of empowerment, and actively breaking through criminal background stereotypes.

The Sweet Beginnings program challenges other stereotypes as well.

“I'm an African-American woman," says Brenda Palms-Barber, the director of Sweet Beginnings. “You wouldn't look at us and think we're beekeepers. But we're out there checking hives, diagnosing problems, and extracting honey!"

Palms-Barber also points out that environmental work and urban agriculture are often seen as luxury activities. “I don't have time for that. I need a job," she often hears. Sweet Beginnings bypasses this attitude by teaching economic opportunity and job skills, letting ecological awareness sink in throughout the process.

A Sweet Beginnings employee transfers a bee colony to a new hive. Photo provided by Sweet Beginnings, used with permission.

It doesn't take long for Sweet Beginnings employees to take note of their bees' dependence on green areas and habitats undisturbed by pesticides, either. Trainees even learn about honeybee biology, the importance of pollinators, and the negative health effects of refined sugar and unnatural skin care products.

Palms-Barber sums up the success of Sweet Beginnings and its alumni with a fitting metaphor:

“You know, bees don't distinguish between 'weeds' and 'flowers.' They're after the nectar inside."

NLEN and Sweet Beginnings follow the very same principle with the populations they serve, focusing on people's potential to blossom in the workplace. As Chicago's honeybee population expands, so too does an ecological and health-conscious workforce, offering not just sweet beginnings but a bright future as well.

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