Sabina Dyer was in a treatment center when she applied for a slot at the Women’s Bean Project in Denver. She needed a job and had heard good things about the nonprofit that uses employment to help train women for the workforce from a previous graduate of the organization. The organization hires women struggling to find employment to make and manufacture products from black bean soup to jellybeans.
Dyer got the job, tried her best to show up on time and every day, and soon got promoted to a lead position. After she graduated from the program, she landed the role of shipping supervisor, a rare opportunity to be permanently hired for a job within the organization.
“If I would’ve worked somewhere else, I probably would have relapsed or I would have probably went back to that lifestyle, because I wouldn’t have been happy,” Dyer said. “But I’m happy here and I feel like the work is meaningful. And it just changed my life and my perspective on life, too.”
Dyer celebrated her accomplishments on April 20 at the organization’s annual fundraiser and graduation ceremony called Ready, Set, Grow. She was one of three current graduates featured in a video shown to the hundreds of supporters in the room.
Beside the changes for each of the women crossing the stage, there’s another big change coming to the program in the next couple of months. The Women’s Bean Project is opening a brand-new facility, growing to 20,000 square feet at a repurposed car dealership in Athmar Park from 10,000 at its current location at a former firehouse in Curtis Park.
About 70% of a woman’s time at the Women’s Bean Project is spent working, and 30% spent in program activities — such as computer or financial literacy classes — or personal development tasks like creating a sobriety plan, CEO Tamra Ryan said. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
The new location gives the nonprofit room to grow the number of women it serves. At the end of three years, CEO Tamra Ryan estimates they will employ a hundred women a year in full time jobs, up from about 60 women in the program now.
“I would say four out of five qualified applicants, we don’t have space for currently,” Ryan said.
The new facility will create jobs for the for-profit side of the organization and increase opportunities to take on jobs for other companies. Through the expansion, more women will have the chance to break out of the cycle of poverty through employment.
The Women’s Bean Project has served over 1,000 women since its founding in 1989, with the intention to help them gain independence and self-sufficiency.
“What we truly believe is that when you change a woman’s life, you change her family’s life,” Ryan said.
“I want to hire another graduate”
All the women learn the basics of food production, safety and manufacturing during the seven-month program. They learn to make 50 different products that are sold online and in supermarkets across the country. Participants spend their time in production, on the shipping line with Dyer, or doing a variety of other tasks.
Nearly a third of the women’s paid time is spent in programming and coursework. Participants can attend trauma response groups, brush up on their math, reading and writing, enroll in computer and GED classes, get help getting a driver’s license, and receive resume and cover letter advice. On Wellness Wednesdays, speakers come in to talk about empowerment, art and community involvement.
“I’ve seen a couple different women grow,” Dyer said. “And that’s what the whole mission is here, so it’s really great to watch.”
All women are assigned a volunteer job coach from the community who meets with her for an hour each week. Five social work interns called participant advocates meet with the women to help address basic needs like housing, which the program does not provide.
After graduating from the program, the women go on to another full-time position. Within one year after graduation, about 95% of women are employed. Ryan said the organization prioritizes skills that can transfer to their next job after graduation.
Important skills are having consistent attendance, good communication with supervisors, the ability to take direction, and being able to pay attention to details. Ryan said she wants employers to know that if a woman graduated from their program, she is a great employee.
“I think the best testimony is when somebody comes back and says, ‘Hey, she is so awesome, I want to hire another graduate,’” Ryan said.
“Serve more women better”
The new facility is set to open by mid-June. The organization’s production area alone is increasing to 9,000 square feet from just 2,500 currently. The number of production lines will go to six from two.
The program will grow slowly in the new building, adding 15 more women to its ranks in the first year. Ryan anticipates 40 more hires within three years, increasing the size of the program to 100 women. But adding more jobs isn’t the only benefit of the new space.
The current facility lacks private meeting spaces, so a woman and her participant advocate might have to sit in the corner where others could overhear them. The new building
offers small and large meeting rooms, as well as phone booth-style rooms for private work and conversations. Ryan said the new facility was designed with safety and privacy in mind.
“Maybe she needs to call a shelter to see if there’s a bed that night,” Ryan said. “She doesn’t have to do that out in the open.”
Health and wellness experts from the community often come in to provide services to the women, but those resources will be expanded with more space. A dedicated wellness area will offer facials, visits from optometrists and dental hygienists, and trauma-informed yoga. A computer lab and classroom space will also build upon existing programs that lack their own rooms in the current building.
A goal in constructing the new facility is to thoughtfully make a safer environment for the women. Ryan said the upcoming move directly ties into the overarching objectives of the strategic plan, which guides all departments of the organization.
“The building will allow us to serve more women better,” Ryan said.
The company makes more than a million dollars per year from its manufacturing business, but fundraises about the same amount through grants and donations. The cost of personal-development programming is mainly covered by fundraising, most of which occurs at Ready, Set, Grow.
The April 20 annual fundraiser usually brings in about $250,000 in an hour. Ryan said it’s powerful to see hundreds of people gather in celebration of the women in the program.
“It’s just so cool to see so many people show up to be supportive,” Ryan said. “And then to not just be supportive by physically being there, but to give.”
Ryan, several members of the board of directors and a former graduate spoke about the impacts of the program and encouraged guests to donate. The graduates received several rounds of applause and a
“I really still dream of a day when we’re no longer necessary,” Ryan said in her speech to guests. “Until then, today we are presenting you with an opportunity to invest in the future of a woman who has chosen to come to the Bean Project to change her life.”
This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.