When The North Lawndale Employment Network first opened in 1999, it was located in a small modest office with a staff of only three.

Since then, it has evolved into a staff of 12, with 15-member board of directors. The non-profit organization has even drawn the attention of the Chicago Tribune, which recently spotlighted the organization in a Jan. 29 article.

The evolution of the organization was readily on display at their first annual Sweet Beginnings Tea on Monday at the Park Hyatt Hotel, 800 N. Michigan.

This gala brought out several representative donors to the hotel’s banquet hall to celebrate the successful completion of year one of the Sweet Beginnings program.

Representatives from donors such as Boeing, the Steans Family Foundation and LaSalle Bank were in attendance.

Sweet Beginnings is a transitional jobs initiative created to provide local employment for formerly incarcerated individuals and other low-income North Lawndale residents, and to promote community economic development. Sweet Beginnings participants grow and harvest chemical-free honey and related products in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, an urban environment.

Sweet Beginnings operates as a paid training program for community residents with criminal backgrounds, who find it difficult to attain permanent employment. Because of such stringent company policies, formerly incarcerated individuals are stifled in the job market, making it difficult to support themselves and their families without returning to a life of crime.

The Sweet Beginnings Initiative is meant to be just that: a sweet beginning or a second chance. “Beeline” is the product name for the honey grown and harvested by the Sweet Beginnings program.

The NoMi restaurant, located in the Park Hyatt Hotel, uses the Beeline honey and served it during the event.

During her speech to the crowd of approximately 80, Brenda Palms Barber, executive director of the NLEN, acknowledged the raised eyebrows she initially received regarding her plans to train ex-offenders as beekeepers. She said the trainees have learned much needed job skills since the program began.

“Among other things they are learning patience, team-work, and conflict resolutions skills,” said Barber. “They are developing a work history and that will prove to be essential in getting them back on the path to regular employment.”

Barber also noted that in its first year seven unemployed individuals took part in the Sweet Beginnings program, a far cry from the 21,000 individuals currently in the prison system in Chicago.

The highlight of the event, however, was a speech given by keynoter Jennifer Henderson, board of directors chair for Ben & Jerry’s.

The Las Vegas native and businesswomen brought the crowd to their feet.

“It is amazing, the NLEN has lasted for almost six years and many non-profits don’t lastfive,” said Henderson. “It’s like in certain third world countries with a high rate of infant death, they don’t event celebrate their child’s birthday’s until after they reach six, because so many die in the first five years.”

Henderson said how important it is to continue to support the work of the NLEN.

“My mother said something very profound to me the other day,” said Henderson. “‘Where is the cure for cancer? Where is the cure for AIDS? Could it be stuck in the mind of a man locked up that society has given up on?'”

The North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) was established in 1999 after a five-year community planning process facilitated by the Steans Family Foundation. NLEN’s mission is to improve the earnings potential of North Lawndale residents through innovative employment initiatives that lead to economic advancement and an improved quality of life.

For more information about the NLEN, the Sweet Beginnings program or other services visit www.nlen.org, or call 773/638-1825.