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For much of her adult life, Corina Allen lived on the streets of Denver as a self-described heroin junky. But when her antics landed her in jail for three months, Allen knew she needed to find a new path forward. “I was like, ‘OK, I can either go back to the life that I hated, that made me miserable, or I can try to figure something else out,” says Allen, who is 41.
That was when she first heard about the Women’s Bean Project, a Denver nonprofit that hires chronically unemployed women and empowers them with training, workshops, therapy, classes, and other resources to help them find—and keep—long-term jobs. The Women’s Bean Project hired Allen in August 2018, and she spent the next nine months working in the organization’s food manufacturing business and, more importantly, working on herself. After graduating, she worked with the group’s staffers to track down loans and grants to pay for coding school. Now, Allen works as a full-time software developer, which she describes as her “dream job.”
Allen’s transformation is just one of the many success stories to come out of the Women’s Bean Project, which is moving into a new facility this summer. Upgrading from its current 10,000-square-foot location on Curtis Street to a new 20,000-square-foot space on Alameda Street will allow the long-standing organization to expand its scope and reach more women in the Denver metro area. The Women’s Bean Project is sharing the 2.5-acre parcel with the Denver Housing Authority, which has contracted Denver nonprofit Warren Village to build roughly 74 units of affordable housing at the site.
Contrary to what its name suggests, the Women’s Bean Project isn’t really in the bean business (at least not entirely). The name harkens back to the organization’s founding 33 years ago, when its late founder Jossy Eyre spent $500 of her own money to hire two women to make 10-bean soup kit. Eyre had been volunteering at a Denver daytime shelter while working toward a master’s degree in social work when she realized that women in poverty needed steady employment to become more independent and self-sufficient. During the holiday season of 1989, Eyre’s fledgling organization sold its initial batch of 10-bean soup and made $6,100, which she re-invested to help even more women.
The Women’s Bean Project has grown ever since. Today, the organization still makes 10-bean soup, but also baking mixes, snacks, popcorn, dog treats, coffee and tea, instant meals, spice blends, sweets, and other soups and chili kits, which are for sale on its website, via fair trade marketplaces, and at roughly 1,000 retail stores across the country, including King Soopers and Whole Foods.
Its impact has grown too: Each year, the Women’s Bean project now supports 60 women, who spend six to nine months working full-time for the organization. They spend 70 percent of their paid time working on the production floor, in the shipping department, or doing a variety of other tasks for the food manufacturing business. The other 30 percent of their time—also paid—goes toward taking computer classes, attending trauma workshops, learning about financial literacy, and other types of self-improvement and healing activities. “We address the whole person,” says Tamra Ryan, the Women’s Bean Project’s chief executive officer. “We call it the ‘bean’ job and the ‘you’ job. Everything we do is focused on helping someone overcome the things that often get in the way of getting and keeping a job.”
Before they graduate from the program, participants also work with the Women’s Bean Project’s 13 long-term staffers to identify their interests and skills and apply for “career entry-level jobs,” or roles with benefits and opportunities for advancement, Ryan says. Most women who go through the program haven’t held a job for longer than a year, though their average age is 38. But after their time with the Women’s Bean Project, 93 percent of graduates are still employed a year later.
“We’re working with her so that her next job is sticky,” says Ryan. “We create an environment where women discover what their talents and their potential are and begin to believe they’re worthy of having a better job and a better life, a job where they can support themselves and their family. If we can be that in-between part that helps someone begin to believe those things—and maybe we believe it before she does—that’s when we’ve done our work.”
After moving into the new larger building this summer, the Women’s Bean Project will be able to buy more materials in bulk to help drive down the costs of its manufacturing arm, which means more money can go toward supporting women. Having more space will also allow the organization to take on contract jobs for other manufacturers, which will ultimately enable the Women’s Bean Project to hire more women. Participants will also have more room to spread out while working on themselves: the new building includes a dedicated computer lab, classrooms and private spaces, and a wellness area.
“We believe that all women have the power to transform their lives through employment,” says Ryan. “The purpose of us going to this new building is to be able to have an even greater impact on more women and therefore more families.”
The Women’s Bean Project’s new location is 1300 W. Alameda Ave. (check its Facebook page for updates on when the facility will open). People who want to support the Women’s Bean Project can get involved by volunteering, buying the products, donating, and spreading the word about its mission.