In Curtis Park, former Denver Firehouse #10 is glowing. Children dart between the stations set up to explain the mission of the Women’s Bean Project, which is celebrating its thirtieth year with an open house in the space it’s called home since 1995. The showroom above the production floor is loud with laughter and scented with cumin wafting off black-bean shooters and cilantro emanating from guacamole. Trays of tacos disappear as quickly as they’re dispatched from the kitchen.
Shaundra Wells walks tall through the crowd, greeting friends. In 2011, she was raising three children on public assistance and had not held a job in five years; her abusive partner was incarcerated. “I saw a flier in Denver Human Services for something called the Women’s Bean Project,” she recalls. After a group interview, she was accepted into the program. Today, Wells has her own cleaning service that has hired four other WBP graduates, is pursuing a master’s degree, and is working on her third fantasy novel.
The Women’s Bean Project was founded by Jossy Eyre in 1989. Then in her late fifties, Eyre volunteered at a daytime homeless shelter and observed women cycling and recycling through the same system, perhaps getting jobs, but quickly losing them for lack of skills that many people take for granted. Noticing that a number of her friends were partial to bean soups as a healthy meal, Eyre invested $500 of her own funds, hired two homeless women, and went to work bagging beans. Although Eyre is no longer active with the project, her mission continues. “We’re proud to honor her legacy every day, by continuing to serve,” says Tamra Ryan, the nonprofit’s fourth CEO, who’s been with the project for almost seventeen years.
“That first holiday season they made $6,100 on her investment,” continues Ryan. “That’s not a bad ROI.” No longer a cottage industry, the WBP is now a fully fledged food manufacturer, with a product line that has expanded from bean soup to encompass more than fifty products, among them cookies, cornbread mix and a newly launched selection of dried snacks including plantain chips, spiced mangoes and trail mix, available in 1,000-plus stores across the country and online on Amazon and at womensbeanproject.com.
Creating these products gives participants on-the-job training; the funds raised through sales help them connect with community resources to overcome myriad obstacles, among them a lack of transportation, no high school diploma, inadequate child care and criminal records. For women on the margin, the barriers to stable jobs are high. More than 1,000 have come through this transitional employment program, which combines workplace training with other services. Most women are referred by previous participants or through probation and parole officers, halfway houses or homeless shelters; five classes are admitted each year. Each woman earns $11.10 an hour (increasing to $12.25 in January) and works 36 hours a week. Perhaps most important, the women are met “where they are,” according to Ryan, and lifted up in a supportive, accountable environment.
After six months, they begin a supported search for outside employment, with interview coaching, résumé reviews and professional attire from Dress for Success.
“Barriers never happen in singles; there are multiples,” says Ryan. “Addiction and incarceration...those are almost always interpolated. Maybe she was a teen mom who dropped out of school. Maybe low skill levels and a spotty work history, maybe because of incarceration. So the combination of these things is really what we're trying to address — to focus on job-readiness skills like coming to work every day and on time, communication with your supervisor and paying attention to detail. All these things, it doesn't matter where you work — you'll need these soft skills that are about being a good employee, but also an adult in our community. We recognize that neither of those solutions can happen in isolation. We need to teach the skills she needs to get the job, but then the skills she needs to be able to keep it.”
Many program participants have lived through abuse, addiction and incarceration. Some travel far; one current enrollee makes a three-hour round-trip from her Greeley halfway house by bus. All are expected to show up unimpaired by drugs or alcohol, and to help create a safe workplace for themselves and their fellow employees.
“We really have chosen to take the safety angle, which is that you can't come to work impaired because it's not safe,” says Ryan. “And if now is not the right time because you're not able to maintain your sobriety, then maybe there's going to be a better time for you, so we may have to part ways. But you won't be automatically terminated the first time you have a positive drug test.” While there’s zero tolerance for any threats or violence, such instances are rare. “We set the tone,” says Ryan. “This is a safe and accepting place. Everybody's here for a reason and, frankly, one woman's reason is no better or worse than another. What matters is where she's going.”
The challenges have changed over the past thirty years. “Between 1977 and 2004, the female inmate population grew 757 percent,” explains Ryan. “And we certainly weren’t [yet] seeing the effects on the next generation. Because when you remove a mother from the family, then you think about what that does to the rest of the family. … I really believe when you change a woman's life, you change the family’s life. There is no doubt in my mind that the shortest way to affect a family unit is to affect the mother.”
Wells and her three children have seen those effects. “My kids are great,” she says one Sunday morning as she makes breakfast before a day of homework review (her oldest, a high school freshman, is into robotics), family dinner with Grandma and preparing for the week ahead. “We’re all in a really great place...happy, in a structured home environment.” The family has attended therapy to process the past, and Wells is especially proud to be able to assist her mother. “I depended a lot on my mom throughout the years,” she says. “So now it's good to be able to help her, after everything she's done for me.”
Current WBP participants have similar hopes. Maggie Beach has been in the program since July, after “making some bad choices,” she says. The mother of two boasts that she hasn’t been late once, despite having to catch the multiple buses that get her to the production floor. After an April graduation, she plans on trade college. “I have more confidence now,” she explains. “Keep your head up. It’s okay. It’s what we do.”
Brigitte Soldana feels the same way. She arrived in September after a referral from her parole officer, and enjoys packaging the ready-to-eat snacks. “Have you tried the mango with chili powder? It’s amazing,” she says. Also a mom, she gives WBP credit for creating a supportive environment. “They don't give you a step up. They give you ten steps up,” she notes. “I’m confident now. I have hope for the future.”
Ryan has hope for the future, as well. This month, WBP received a 2019 Bank of America Neighborhood Builders award, which comes with a $200,000 grant and honors the nonprofit’s work in addressing economic mobility. And after fourteen years in the former firehouse, the Women’s Bean Project is planning to sell that building and purchase a larger structure, where it can expand its mission to “serve more women, better” by increasing sales and revenue through more production. And that means more women in the program.
Ryan recalls one graduate who was introduced to drugs at age twelve by her mother, was on the streets by thirteen, and arrived at WBP after incarceration at eighteen. Today she’s the happily married mother of a six-year-old daughter. “What I think is so amazing about her story is that her daughter will never know a time when her mom was using or her mom didn't have a job or was living that life,” Ryan says. “Ultimately, I come to work every day thinking about two things. One is, we have to hire every woman who needs us, and the way we do that is to increase sales. But then what I want to make sure of is that in twenty years, the daughters of the women we serve today don't need us.”
The Women’s Bean Project will hold a holiday open house from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, December 7, at its current home at 3201 Curtis Street. Regular hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and you can also buy Women’s Bean Project products, including gift boxes and sampler packs, at select grocery stores and specialty shops around the country, as well as on Amazon and at womensbeanproject.com. For more information, call 303-292-1919, ext. 107.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.