By Nassim Benchaabane St. Louis Post-Dispatch
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Kalen McAllister, 66, a Buddhist priest and retired chaplain at the Farmington Correctional Center has created a unique non-profit that is serving the community and individuals who are trying to re-enter society.
Bakers at a small downtown shop here need not have prior kitchen experience. Just a felony record.
Laughing Bear Bakery founder Kalen McAllister never asks job candidates what landed them behind bars. She just hopes her growing nonprofit can keep them from going back by providing above-minimum-wage pay, a place to learn job skills and build a work history, and a support network to lean on in tough times.
"I don't care what they did in the past," said McAllister, 66, a Buddhist priest and retired chaplain at the Farmington Correctional Center. "I only care what they do this day forward."
About 19,000 inmates in Missouri are released each year; about 44 percent of former inmates eventually end up back behind bars, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Lack of community support and the inability to find a good job are primary reasons ex-offenders, many of whom also battle mental health issues or drug addiction, return to jail, McAllister said. Inmates who aren't released on parole get a one-way ticket back to the jurisdiction of their crime with little cash and just the clothes on their back, she said.
Many inmates have been behind bars so long their families have disowned them and they have no one to go to, she said.
"Inmates would come to me upset and shaking, saying, 'I don't have a job, I have nowhere to go,' " McAllister said.
"You've been locked away and told what to do every hour, and then suddenly you're out with nothing.
"They're supposed to find a job and go out to work five days a week, but they don't even have extra clothes."
McAllister, an avid home baker, started Laughing Bear in 2015 with only $2,000 in donations and no detailed business plan.
Now it operates several hours three days a week out of the basement of Centenary United Methodist Church downtown and sells an array of sweets and treats at the Farmington prison, Straub's grocery stores, Smokehouse Market, St. Louis Cinemas theaters and area farmers markets.
Among 18 ex-cons who have worked at the bakery, just one has ended up back behind bars. Most have moved on to find full-time jobs, McAllister said.
The bakery currently employs five ex-cons and pays $11 an hour. It's meant as a stepping stone to other jobs, but the bakery team hopes it can expand operations to five days a week.
The nonprofit's board, all volunteers, includes McAllister, former Department of Corrections director George Lombardi, and Mike Gann, a former deputy warden who supervised McAllister at the Farmington prison. Their connections with the corrections system brings many referrals to the bakery from parole officers and other contacts.
Leah Douglas, 26, says she wouldn't have her job baking sweets at Busch Stadium if it weren't for Laughing Bear.
She was aimless after being released from jail in late 2016 after serving 11 months on a drug conviction, and she ended up at a halfway home, she said. She found Laughing Bear in July after her parole officer referred her.
"It was hard getting out there and supporting myself for the first time," she said. "I thought it was going to go so wrong, but I took it each day at a time, and everything went right."
Douglas often drops by the bakery to visit her former co-workers.
"Here there are always open arms to support you," she said. "You're never turned away. Other people would say 'It's your fault you went to prison.' Here somebody actually understands what you're going through."
The bakery offers flexibility and support where other employers wouldn't, kitchen manager Peter Wallace said. Ex-felons can take time off when needed and get help with parole appointments or other issues that arise.
"Life has already beaten on them pretty hard by the time they've gotten here," Wallace said. "We just try to make it a little easier and invest in them any way we can."
Wallace, 34, of New York, first got in trouble with the law when he was 10 years old, he said. He spent four years in prison while in his 20s and struggled with drug addiction.
After his release, he filled out hundreds of applications for jobs but heard back from only a handful, he said. "It's that word, 'felony,'" he said. "I try to be honest and transparent about it, but it's ended job interviews." He met McAllister after moving to St. Louis and started at Laughing Bear a year ago.
Baking offers a comforting environment for employees in tough times and a sense of pride other work doesn't, Wallace said. The happiness and satisfaction working at the bakery gives is subtle but important, he said.
"Here my blood, sweat and tears go into something I really love doing, something I create for people to enjoy," he said. "I can get up every day and feel good about what I'm doing.
"A lot of us did the things we did because we were unhappy. To be able to find happiness in work is a huge help." Alex "Chip" Isadore, 29, of Florissant, just wanted to get back to work to support his fiancee and their three children when he was released in November after three years behind bars in Boonville, Mo.
"My main concern was getting a job," he said. "I thought 'I got a record now.' "
He found some sporadic work through a temp agency until a friend told him about Laughing Bear three months ago.
McAllister "knew I wasn't crazy just because I had been locked up," Isadore said. "Some people look at you like you're scum when they know you have a record."
Isadore hopes the bakery's operations can grow enough to hire him full time. He said he was pushing the bakery's product whenever he can, spreading the word with family and friends.
"I would be happy just doing this," he said. "I only see it getting bigger and better."