West Side nonprofit gets funding for new home to help train, employ more ex-offenders

The North Lawndale Employment Network, internationally known for its innovative bee-keeping and honey-making program for ex-offenders, has bought the 20,000-square-foot, shuttered Liberty Bank at 1111 S. Homan Ave., doubling its capacity to train and find jobs for West Side residents with criminal backgrounds.

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Brenda Palms-Barber, founder & CEO of the North Lawndale Employment Network, and Joe Wilson, her director of workforce programs & clinical services, will host an On the Table breakfast centered on the correlation between financial and mental healt

Brenda Palms-Barber, founder & CEO of the North Lawndale Employment Network, and Joe Wilson, her director of workforce programs & clinical services.

Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times photo

When Brenda Palms-Barber moved here from Denver to become executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network, she could not have foreseen the 20-year journey leading to a new, 20,000-square-foot headquarters bringing its myriad programs under one roof.

On Thursday, Palms-Barber, now president and CEO, along with city and philanthropic officials will celebrate that journey, and NLEN’s acquisition of the shuttered Liberty Bank & Trust at 1111 S. Homan Ave., with the help of a $2.5 million city grant, $1 million from JPMorgan Chase and other funding sources.

“It really is a very monumental milestone,” Palms-Barber said Wednesday of the new home for NLEN’s many job-training and rehabilitation programs.


The North Lawndale Employment Network is known for its most innovative program, “Sweet Beginnings,” which trains ex-offenders in bee-keeping and production and sales of honey products.

Provided photo

The nonprofit’s new headquarters will double — to 5,000 — the number of West Side residents served.

“It’s critically important that we take a moment to thank and express our deep appreciation for those investors who essentially believed in our vision, understood the importance of this building and the importance of investing in our third decade of service,” Palms-Barber said.

Founded by the Steans Family Foundation, the organization provides workforce training for a target population facing the employment barrier of criminal records, offering skills for in-demand jobs in transportation, distribution and logistics, information technology, retail and hospitality, and manufacturing.

With more than $5 million in public and private funding, NLEN will invest in renovation of the former home of what had been the last black-owned bank on the West Side, as well as in staffing and equipment.

The new workforce-development campus, to include a cafe and event space, is expected to contribute significantly to the transformation of the beleaguered West Side community — with an unemployment rate of over 23 percent — when it opens in spring 2020.

Of the residents served, 83 percent are single, and 75 percent of them male; men ages 19-25 make up 33 percent of those served; and women ages 36-40, 20 percent. A third lack a high-school diploma or GED, and 70 percent have a criminal record.

“We’ve worked with Brenda and her team at NLEN for many years, and we’ve really tried to help them with some of their programs that are making a difference,” said Charlie Corrigan, head of Chicago philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase, which in 2017 made a commitment to provide $40 million in funding over three years, targeting the city’s South and West sides.

“NLEN’s vision was not just about buying a building, but about increasing their impact,” Corrigan said. “We saw the opportunity to make an investment that would hopefully leverage or catalyze more investments to come, which was something we wanted to be a part of.”

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