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Colo. Project Teaches Job, Life Skills to Help Women Combat Poverty

December 17, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Armed with $500 worth of beans, two women founded a non-profit group in Denver to empower impoverished women by teaching them workplace skills and providing jobs to the chronically homeless and unemployed. Spencer Michels reports.
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: It has been a tough road for Rose Robinson as a mother of six kids. She has been consistently unemployed and in trouble with the law.

ROSE ROBINSON, job trainee: I was drinking, doing drugs, and had a few felonies, and couldn’t find a job.

SPENCER MICHELS: With few skills or options, she was sent here by social services to the Women’s Bean Project, a unique job-training program in Denver, Colorado.

ROSE ROBINSON: That was my last resort, because it’s a place where women that can’t find jobs and, when they hired me, you know, I did cry, because I felt good.

SPENCER MICHELS: Now in its 20th year, the program employs 40 women each year who have been chronically unemployed and living in poverty. They make and package products such as soup, brownie mix, jelly beans, and salsas that are available in grocery stores in 40 states and over the Internet.

TAMARA RYAN, executive director, Women’s Bean Project: So what we’re trying to do is make the basket seem overflowing.

SPENCER MICHELS: But it’s not the food that makes this program a complete package, says executive director Tamara Ryan.

TAMARA RYAN: We’re not trying to make the best bean soup makers of America. What we’re trying to do is create an environment where we can teach basic job readiness skills, the idea that you have to come to work every day, and on time, and manage conflict in the workplace, and dress appropriately, and take direction.

But then also we find that that alone isn’t what helps women become successful. They’re lacking basic life skills — problem-solving, goal-setting, the ability to, when your child care falls apart, to fix that and then continue to go to work.

And then, also, about 60 percent of the time when a woman comes here for a job, she’s homeless. So she has to — we have to help her find regular housing.

A project with humble beginnings

SPENCER MICHELS: Giving women these tools for life was the brainchild of social entrepreneur Jossy Eyre.

Eyre, who grew up in Holland during World War II and now is a retired social worker, was volunteering at a women's shelter in Denver in 1987 when she was struck by how the residents were stuck in an endless cycle of poverty.

JOSSY EYRE, founder, Women's Bean Project: What I saw there were many, many, many women who were not part of the mainstream population. They appeared very depressed, very much in need of many things, including emotional and social support. But most importantly, they had absolutely no way of being self-sufficient.

SPENCER MICHELS: Eyre looked for ways to provide some money in these women's pockets and give them skills to get a job and be self-sufficient. She saw that health-conscience friends started eating more beans and legumes, so she thought she could create a product that would sell in food stores in the area.

She spent $500 of her own money, bought the beans, and created "10 Bean Soup."

JOSSY EYRE: We started out with two women, and they were interested, and they enjoyed being together, and giving a little bit of meaning to their lives, giving them a sense of purpose.

SPENCER MICHELS: Those two women sold more than 50 packages of soup mix that year at health food stores around the Denver area. Eyre thought eventually the business would fully fund the program. It is getting closer.

Last year, the Women's Bean Project had more than $750,000 in sales. And those sales currently provide more than 60 percent of the funding for the program. The rest is raised through private donations and grants.

Eyre also had another marker of success: the growth in self-confidence among the women she trained.

JOSSY EYRE: I think the biggest hurdle was the sense of low self-esteem, no sense of being able to do anything really worthwhile, and so we -- we have special things that we did to create sort of a family environment and a safe place.

Mapping out important goals

SPENCER MICHELS: Eyre started to have daily meetings to talk to the women about their current and long-term goals.

TRAINEE: My long-term goal is to get off this ankle bracelet, get off parole, find me an awesome job.

TRAINEE: Clean my house, help my mom find a place, and find out when I meet with my probation officer, and find out when I go to court. My long-term goals are get my GED, stable employment, and my cosmetology license, also, to lose weight.

JOSSY EYRE: Employees are always expected to be on time.

SPENCER MICHELS: And the program offers weekly seminars with a whole variety of job-placement help, from resume writing to mock interviews.

INSTRUCTOR: We want you to think like the employer. The employer is one of the many people who's going to be judging you.

SPENCER MICHELS: All those efforts paid off for Rose Robinson. After a year of training, she became a full-time cook for a retirement home.

ROSE ROBINSON: I was really nervous about finding a job, but when they had those classes, they really helped me to bring myself up to going to the interviews. And I didn't really know how to do an interview, and they showed us how to do interviews.

SPENCER MICHELS: Robinson is not unique: 70 percent of the women who make it through the program find employment; also, like Robinson, 60 percent of the women in the program have criminal records; and 40 percent are single parents.

As is the case with Shawna Chism, who recently entered the program. She is a mother of two and has been in and out of trouble with the law her whole life. She says, before she came to the Bean Project, she thought it was too late for her to start a career. Now she knows she will get a job.

SHAWNA CHISM, trainee: I'm more confident than I was when I started working here. I have skills that I wouldn't have had otherwise. And I have all kinds of resources that I never would have known about.

And they really help you with stuff. Once it's time to move on from here, they don't just send you out there. They make sure that you're going out there to something.

SPENCER MICHELS: After 20 years, Eyre is in awe of how the program has grown and that her original hopes and dreams are still reflected in the project.

JOSSY EYRE: I feel humbled. I feel that that was the original vision. And I'm grateful that that is still the vision, to be there, to offer women that opportunity.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Bean Project hopes to reach more than $1 million in sales in 2008 and expand to accept even more women in the coming years.