"Women's Bean Project wishes to put itself out of business."
That is the opening sentence for the organization's recent three-year strategic plan, and it's a difficult one to argue with, as the ultimate goal of the Women's Bean Project is to help liberate women from the devastating cycles of poverty, domestic violence, incarceration, drug dependency and chronic unemployment.
Seeing that homeless shelters -- while necessary to help keep the homeless safe -- did not provide women with either the guidance or tools to become self-sufficient, Jossy Eyre created the Women's Bean Project in 1989. Eyre used $500 of her own money to jump-start the group by buying up beans and putting women to work making "Toni's 10-Bean Soup," the project's first bean-mix. The women are paid above minimum wage for their work as well as for their attendance in life skills classes and job readiness training.
Today the project is in such high demand among Denver's women that the staff have to turn away four out of every five women who apply. Besides being online, products created by the Women's Bean Project are now carried in every King Sooper's store in Colorado and approximately 100 Safeway grocery stores.
"The biggest difference I have seen in the women is their boost in confidence," said Brittny Wilson, the development director of the Women's Bean Project. "The Bean Project gives them a chance to discover their strengths and gives them the self-confidence they need to make the necessary changes in their lives."
Wilson said the Bean Project is considered transitional employment and asks women to commit to the program for 6 months to a year. The timeline is meant to help the women set goals for seeking full-time occupation after they graduate from the Bean Project.
The Huffington Post caught up with Wilson to talk more about the Women's Bean Project.
How do women find out about the Bean Project?
The WBP program is one thing we don't have to market. Women hear about it from friends, relatives, parole officers, other women in the halfway house or prison, etc. We call every woman who has applied to the Bean but has not been hired before each 'big' hire we do in June, and invite them to a pre-hire orientation. Last June we called over 300 women and over 100 showed up for the orientation. In the end, we could only hire 20 due to our production needs.
How does a woman "graduate" from the Bean Project?
The Bean Project is considered "transitional employment." When they are hired, we focus on three things: 1. Basic needs (they have a place to live, adequate child care, transportation to work, etc.) 2. Job readiness skills (showing up to work on time, getting along with coworkers, supervisors, etc.) 3. Life skills (conflict management, personal finance management, life coaching). The women work on production (whether it's jewelry, basket making, food production) approximately 70 percent of the time they're here, and take classes for the other 30 percent.
We ask for a six-month commitment when they start so we can assess production needs, but the longest they can stay is one year. We always set a graduation date, no matter if they've found a job yet or not because we want them focused on job search. The average woman works here for nine months before moving on to other full-time employment. Currently we have a lot of women who have already found jobs, but for those that haven't, their graduation date is March 16. That gives them a deadline and a goal.
Do the women making the jewelry name their own creations?
We've hired two professional jewelry designers who each design an exclusive line -- about six styles each -- for Women's Bean Project. They come in twice a year -- we have a fall line and spring line -- to teach the women how to make each design style. While the women do have input into naming if they'd like, the majority of our jewelry is named by our volunteer marketing committee.
What stories of women in the organization can you can share with us?
Here is a short bio of one of our current program participants named Paula. She wrote this back in August so you have a time-frame:
'It has been six months since I made my transition from Department of Corrections back into society. I heard about Women's Bean Project through a current program participant of the Bean Project. I heard wonderful things and felt it was something I needed to pursue so I placed my application. After looking for work for five months to no end, the Bean Project hired me. The Women's Bean Project is about making a commitment for change. It's providing me with knowledge, confidence, self-esteem and practical skills so I can compete in the mainstream job market. We are women from all walks of life with different background but share a common goal: to be successful."
What have you learned from being at the Bean Project?
What I have learned from working at the Bean Project is that the women who come through our program come from all backgrounds. I've learned that no matter what resources we provide for them, it takes a fundamental willingness and readiness to change within the woman to really transform and become self-sufficient. I have also had my eyes opened to the obstacles that these women face on their journey back to self-sufficiency. Many of them live in halfway houses and, therefore, have to pay rent as well as pay restitution to the state for their crime. Their debt builds the longer they are out of prison because they can't find a job while having a felony record. Not to mention the cost associated with the dependents they care for and watch over. It's no wonder that a lot of them go back to prison or start making bad choices again as a result.
All images courtesy of the Women's Bean Project.
SLIDESHOW: The products and people that make up the Women's Bean Project