To most people a hill of beans doesn’t amount to much, but to Marcelina Basquez, a 45-year old soon-to-be grandmother who has spent much of the last 28 years in and out of the Colorado prison system, beans are a lifesaver. Today, for the first time in Basquez’ short but stormy life the future is looking brighter and holds promise thanks to the insight of one woman and the Women’s Bean Project.
The organization was the brainchild of Jossy Eyre, a retired social worker volunteering in the daytime homeless shelter for women and kids, says Tamra Ryan, WBP Executive Director. Eyre came upon a troubling pattern: women came to the shelter, used the services and left once they got a job, but the same women kept returning again and again. Eyre realized that while the women might have the ability to get a job, they didn’t have the skills to keep it.
She came up with an idea that she believed would help break the cycle of poverty for these women. Eyre purchased $500 worth of beans and put two women to work making and packaging a product called, Toni’s 10-Bean Soup. At year’s end none was more shocked than Eyre to realize her project had netted more than $6,000 from its soup sales. To Eyre, though, the real bottom line had nothing to do with beans, or soup, or even sales, for that matter. As the WBP website proclaims, “We don’t hire women to sell beans. We sell beans to hire women.” Eyre’s plan was to put women to work while at the same time teach them the skills necessary to not only get employment but to keep employment and to work towards long term self-sufficiency.
“We have a dual mission,” explains Ryan about the WBP, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. “One product is the food product, and that’s really our economic engine. That’s what supports the mission of teaching women the skills to become self-sufficient, which is our other product. One doesn’t exist without the other,” she adds. “They are very interdependent, and often in conflict,” she laughs. “It’s not a simple business…Many other food manufactures would try to find the best workers, but almost by design we’re trying to find people who may or may not show up for work tomorrow…and that makes for a really interesting dynamic.”
WBP does not to hire permanent employees. The women work at WBP for six to 12 months as they learn the necessary skills to stay employed. About 70 percent of the women’s time is spent working on the production line (they make $7.50 an hour); the other 30 percent of the time is spent in class learning things like goal setting, budgeting, and very basic computer skills such as opening a web browser, creating an email address, and learning how to apply for a job online. “We try to teach them life skills – problem solving and goal setting,” says Ryan.
Ryan believes the holistic approach is essential. WBP makes certain the women have suitable housing, transportation, child care, and if necessary, helps them find health care. “What we’re trying to do,” explains Ryan, “is address all area of their life so that when they leave us, if their car breaks down or their child care falls apart, they won’t do what they’ve done in the past, which is to just quit going to work. They will learn the skills to solve that problem and then they continue to be employed.”
Most women arrive at WBP referred by other program graduates. Ryan says that typically the women come from a cycle of poverty and are not the only members in their family dealing with felony backgrounds or addictions or lack of employment. Other women are referred by parole officers, drug treatment programs, shelters or state vocational rehabilitation counselors.
Like Basquez most women arrive with little or no self esteem which manifests as angry, defensive behavior. The women are usually not outgoing nor personable. “Over the time that they are with us, we’re trying to do a lot of things,” says Ryan.
One is giving them the opportunity to have some successes and then celebrating those successes so that they see they can accomplish things, and that they can accomplish things in a relatively short amount of time. It starts to boost their self esteem.
WBP strives to create a safe and accepting work environment so that no one feels like, ‘Gosh, my felony is so bad that nobody wants to be around me,’ Ryan explains. “Everybody is here for a reason and to the extent that they can all be supportive of each other and not be judgmental – that’s the best environment that we can create.”
The staff and all program participants begin each day with the Morning Meeting which begins at 8:45 a.m. On Mondays everyone sets goals for the week including personal, work or job-search related depending on where they are in the process, and small goals toward their long term goal. A personal goal might be making a dentist appointment for a child, a work-related goal might be learning how to make the WBP baked good mixes, and a long term goal toward permanent housing might include calling and getting their name added to a list.
Each person announces their goals for the week and at Friday’s meeting will give a report as to whether or not they accomplished them. It helps hold each person accountable, but more importantly Ryan says, it gives them the opportunity to celebrate success. “We have a gong that only can be rung when something big has happened like somebody gets a job, or someone gets an apartment or something like that,” she says.
Then there is the “You Rock rock” which is awarded each week. It is truly a rock with You Rock written on it in White Out. “There is nothing fancy about it,” Ryan laughs, “but it has value because of the value we’ve assigned to it and the system through which we award it.”
The person who received the rock the previous week decides who gets it the following week. The rock can be awarded for a number of reasons; a woman might have been observed working especially hard, or helping someone else, for example. “I will tell you that when someone who’s relatively new to the program is given the You Rock rock, it makes such a huge difference in terms of how she feels about herself. Obviously it’s symbolic, put it really makes a big difference,” says Ryan.
The women are reviewed at 30, 60, 90, and 120-day intervals. It helps get them used to the process of being reviewed, receiving feedback and handling it in a productive manner, but it also allows the staff the opportunity to coach and counsel as appropriate. Ryan says the women used to be given a 10 to 15 cents an hour pay increase after each positive review, but now they are awarded a $50 gift card to places like Wal-Mart or the local grocery store. “We felt that having $50 in your hand today is much more rewarding than making an additional $50 over a period of several months.
The WBP partners with a group that is basically a vocational school with over a hundred different programs and lots of partnerships with employers in the community. The group assists the WBP with coaching the women about how to apply for the job and with what kinds of employers are most appropriate. “Our goal is to work with each woman individually and figure out what kind of job is the best for her given her capabilities, given her education level, and given her interests,” Ryan says. “So we’re not trying to train to a certain kind of job. We’re really trying to help each woman figure out what is the best opportunity for her to find a job that has a career path.”
Last year 50 percent of the women employed by WBP graduated, and of that number 88 percent went on to full-time employment, Ryan reports. It is the highest employment rate they’ve ever had, she notes. Usually it is child care issues or the need to care for someone in the family that gets in the way of a woman’s ability to be employed. Some do go on to additional education and training typically of a vocational type. They might decide to be a CNA or a drug and alcohol counselor, or the kinds of things where they are more community college or vocational education opportunities.
WBP recently implemented a new follow up program so they can better track the long term success of the program and the women. The women are paid $50 to check in every six months. It doesn’t matter what the news is good, bad or indifferent, Ryan says. The follow up works in a lot of ways. “It’s enough money that’s it an incentive, and if the women aren’t doing well, it gives us the opportunity to refer her to resources or even have her come in and use our computer lab to apply for a job. And if she’s doing great, then maybe she will come in and speak with the other women who are in the program.”
It is beans, though, that determine how many women WBP can serve. More sales equal more jobs, Ryan says. “Apparently people like beans when other things are not going so well,” she laughs. “All kidding aside we actually had a great holiday season. We were very pleased with our results.”
Today, WBP products include six different bean soups, along with a cornbread mix, brownie mix, and several cookie mixes. They offer a series of spice packets to make dips and salsas, as well as rubs for meat. In keeping with the bean theme, they sell coffee beans, chocolate-covered espresso beans and jelly beans as well. “It’s a pretty wide variety of different things,” says Ryan. “Our goal over time has been to increase product offering. Everything we make is assembled by our women. It’s made here in our facility with the exception of the coffee, and that’s roasted for us and packaged for us.”
The products can be found in some grocery stores, but mainly are located in specialty food stores and fair trade stores such as Ten Thousand Villages. “We‘re in 40 states across the country,” says Ryan, “and we sell on Amazon.com and Overstock.com and of course our own website.” In addition to the individual packages of soups, WBP offer gifts bundles and gift baskets. (www.womensbeanproject.com)
Marcelina is 45-years old. She went to prison at age 17, and has been in and out of the system four times during the intervening 28 years. “Basically didn’t know much of a life – how to work, how to maintain full time employment…I didn’t have the confidence in myself to do something with my life – to better it.”
She is the mother of three children, though they were raised by her mother. “I’m tired of losing out on my family,” she says. “Now I have a grandson getting ready to be born and I’m excited. I’m ready to be there for my grandson. I wasn’t there for my kids when they were growing up. Maybe I can be there for my grandson.”
Marcelina lived across the street from the Women’s Bean Project, and while she knew it was a place that helped women, she didn’t know what they did. It wasn’t until she was released from prison the last time that she decided to check it out.
“I found out that the Bean Project was still here, so I went ahead and took the initiative. I came over here. I put in my application and called several times and came back a couple of times…I was fortunate enough to get in. It paid off in the long run,” she says.
“It gave me a little bit more confidence within myself so that I’m able to acknowledge that I can do other things than just ripping and running and selling drugs and getting high…I’ve got a more positive attitude, a better outlook on life…I can accomplish other things that are well-meaning to society instead of always trying to make a dollar. I’m actually earning the dollar in a positive way…Everything that I own is bought and paid for. Nothing is stolen or hot and that makes me feel good about myself, because I did it myself,” she says.
“The programs that they offer here are really good, too. They have a job-readiness program that we’re going to…then they have budgeting classes, life skill classes, stuff like that,” Marcelina says. “Before…If I had money in my pocket it was burning a hole. I had to go spend it on stuff I really didn’t need…I’ve learned how to budget my money pretty well,” she says.
“This is the best support system I’ve had…We all basically came from the same environment, so we get close to each other. We help each other out with our problems…and the staff here, they listen to us…That’s what the program is, to help us women out who need help in the work force and within ourselves to become a better person.
“I just finished killing my number, which means I’m done with the system,” Marcelina explains. “I don’t owe the state anything…I don’t have to be going to parole officers or doing UAs (urine analyses) or anything…I’m managing it. I’m free and I’m off the streets. I still come to work every day unless I’m sick,” she says.
“I don’t want to go back through the same thing that I’ve done before. I want a life…The help with the Bean Project, the programs that they offer here, the people that I work with, staff included – they help…I’m not going to throw what I’ve learned now away… I’m happy again. I’m ready. I’m ready to move on and get going with a life. I’m ready for that grandson to be born so I can spoil him.”
Author’s Note: This appeared in the March 2009 issue of Change.