Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)

SWEET RETURN

Honey and social justice — keys in creating self-worth for ex-offenders in beelove program

- BY EVAN F. MOORE, STAFF REPORTER emoore@suntimes.com | @evanFmoore

When Darren Cox was released from prison after 31 years, he didn’t know where to start when it came to launching a new chapter in his life.

The search for a job after prison release is a tough go because of the stigma ex-cons often encounter in the workforce. And some end up falling back into the circumstan­ces that led to incarcerat­ion in the first place.

In Cox’s case, he needed to learn how to use a computer.

“I was in jail for a long time; I didn’t have any skills when I came out,” said Cox. “A friend recommende­d me to see if North Lawndale [Employment Network] could help me out. I didn’t know anything about computers or phones. I told them my problems and they said, ‘OK, don’t worry’; they made me feel comfortabl­e and safe.

He turned to North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), an organizati­on that helps people from North Lawndale — and other communitie­s — find work to ease the transition from prison back to their communitie­s.

“[NLEN] helped me work on computers, and I was able to get one for myself. I was able to become comfortabl­e with using computers. And I went through their ‘Bridge’ program; anger management, job skills, and OSHA. That led me to a job at Sweet Beginnings.”

Cox was hired by Sweet Beginnings LLC, a North Lawndaleba­sed nonprofit that produces beelove, a line of honey-based products made by formerly incarcerat­ed individual­s. (The honey is also an ingredient in Haymarket Brewing’s “Harold’s

’83 Honey Ale,” a beer named after a fictional Harold’s Chicken Shack location number and for the year Chicago elected its first Black mayor, Harold Washington.)

“It was a good transition for me to see how handmade, natural products are made; it was a good experience for me because I learned a lot about myself being productive and having a job,” said Cox. “I took all the advice they gave me and just applied it to my thinking so I can move forward.”

The honey that Cox and his beelove colleagues made can be found on the shelves of Mariano’s supermarke­t locations across Chicago, and in Green Grocer. The honey, along with other products such as body lotion, shower gel and lip balm are available online.

And beelove is in talks with a high-end beauty store chain to sell their products.

Brenda Palms Barber, NLEN’s and Sweet Beginnings LLC’s CEO, remembers a time when Cox’s story may not have been possible because of how some folks didn’t believe in North Lawndale — or its citizens.

People who find jobs through NLEN, specifical­ly with Sweet Beginnings, go through a 90-day “transition­al job” period where they work for the nonprofit and its subsidiary, and then job seekers receive assistance finding permanent employment. Earlier this year, NLEN celebrated its 20-year anniversar­y.

“The idea of a jobs program with formerly incarcerat­ed men and women and honeybees — it just wasn’t intuitive,” said Palms

Barber. “They thought this black woman from Denver has lost her mind. What does she think she can do being on the West Side of Chicago with jobs and beekeepers?

“It was interestin­g to sort of create — or disrupt — what people thought about local honey and that it was being produced in a community where people didn’t expect anything sweet and good to come out of the high violence and drug activity in our neighborho­od, that something sweet and good like honey is produced in North Lawndale — that’s intentiona­l.”

Amid the initial chatter from naysayers, Palms Barber found a fellow bee aficionado at City Hall: former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“Mayor Daley saw an article in the paper about us,” said Palms Barber. “And he invited me to his office to come meet with him because he had a fascinatio­n and an appreciati­on for honeybees to begin with. He said, ‘You know, this is a great idea.’ It was the first time that someone really had affirmed the concept.”

Cox says he’s secured employment with Austin’s Forty Acres Fresh Market.

“It’s a relatively new company but growing,” said Cox. “It’s a pretty good place to go if you want to work.”

He also made a donation toward NLEN’s cause because he knows how tough it is for ex-offenders like himself to turn their lives around.

Cox sent $50 to NLEN — from his laptop.

Few people want to admit to their doctors how many drinks they have per week, how often they exercise or how much water they drink every day, but now technology could make those little white lies even harder to maintain.

The wearable tech in question is called NeckSense, a sensory necklace engineered by researcher­s at Northweste­rn University’s Feinberg School of Medicine that’s designed to help people overcome bad eating habits and understand what drives them to the cookie jar in the first place.

NeckSense uses sensors to detect motion, such as biting and chewing, and records what and how much food is eaten, according to a statement from the university. The necklace includes a tiny camera, which researcher­s plan to remove eventually, which validates the data from the sensors.

The findings can help the wearer, with or without the aid of a doctor or dietitian, to better understand what triggers binging or stress eating and devise a plan to combat unhealthy behaviors.

“The ability to easily record dietary intake patterns allows dieticians [sic] — or even laypeople making use of our tech — to deliver timely digital interventi­ons that occur as eating is happening to prevent overeating,” lead study author Nabil Alshurafa, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northweste­rn University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a university statement.

The purpose of NeckSense is not to evoke shame in its wearers, but to better understand the root causes of certain eating habits, its creators say. By tracking the wearer’s heart rate, for example, NeckSense can help users identify when they’re stress eating.

Now that the initial study has concluded, Alshurafa and his research team plan to tweak the necklace’s design to make it more fashionabl­e and then begin testing the necklace’s ability to assist in real-time interventi­ons, the statement said.

“What I envision is a future in which someone comes into a dietician’s [sic] or physician’s office, then gets these sensors,” he said. “We determine their problems and design a customized interventi­on based on real data. Now we can really tell what their problem is, and our solution is tailored to them and their needs.”

 ??  ?? ABOVE: An employee of The North Lawndale Employment Network, a North Lawndale-based nonprofit organizati­on, and Sweet Beginnings LLC, packages beelove, a line of honey-based products made by formerly incarcerat­ed individual­s.
ABOVE: An employee of The North Lawndale Employment Network, a North Lawndale-based nonprofit organizati­on, and Sweet Beginnings LLC, packages beelove, a line of honey-based products made by formerly incarcerat­ed individual­s.
 ?? ERIK UNGER PHOTOS ?? LEFT: Employees pack and label beelove’s “Chicagolan­d raw, natural honey.”
ERIK UNGER PHOTOS LEFT: Employees pack and label beelove’s “Chicagolan­d raw, natural honey.”
 ??  ?? Brenda Palms Barber
Brenda Palms Barber
 ??  ?? Darren Cox
Darren Cox
 ?? NORTHWESTE­RN UNIVERSITY ?? Meet NeckSense, the new tool from researcher­s at Northweste­rn University that tracks eating patterns and helps dietitians understand a patient’s eating habits.
NORTHWESTE­RN UNIVERSITY Meet NeckSense, the new tool from researcher­s at Northweste­rn University that tracks eating patterns and helps dietitians understand a patient’s eating habits.

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