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This is the story of an inner-city bakery, an Eastern religion, a group of convicted felons, and the woman that brings it all together. That woman, a Buddhist priest, makes hardened men light up at the mention of her name. When we asked Travis Jones who has spent much of his life in prison about her, a smile suddenly took over his face and lit up the room. All you have to say is “Kalen.”
“She’s cool. Kalen’s cool. I like Kalen. She’s a live wire,” Jones said through that grin.
He is one of nearly thirty people who have walked out of prison and into a kitchen of Kalen McAllister’s making. The Laughing Bear Bakery is quite a story. One that has turned the heads of a small documentary group in New York City. What’s the draw?
“I think it’s the fact that you have to have a felony to work at the bakery,” McAllister surmised with a knowing grin of her own.
And that fact is changing the lives of those who work here. Start with Jones, whose checkered past has made basic survival on the outside a challenge.
“I’m 32, and out of 32 years I’ve spent 14 behind bars,” he told us. “)I’ve been to Bonne Terre, Bowling Green, Tipton, Charleston, Crossroads, I’ve been to a few prisons.”
And, as it is for so. Many inmates, getting out has not offered much.
“If they did their full time they got a bus ticket back to where the crime was committed,” McAllister said. “Not necessarily home, but where the crime was committed, and like $8.50 if they didn’t save up any money and they were on the street basically.”
She knows this because she spent more than five years as the Chaplin at the state prison in Farmington, the only Buddhist who ever held such a position in the state of Missouri.
“People would come up to me after they got their notice they would be released in a couple of weeks and they would be panicking because they would say they’re going to be on the streets,” she recalls. “I promised the guys that I’m going to do something about this. I’m going to have a job for people when they come out of prison.”
But what kind of jobs? She had noticed over the years most places that hired convicts offered their own version of hard labor, difficult work that required little skill. Her goal was to provide something different.
“I thought, I like to bake. I can’t cook. I can’t cook. But I like to bake.”
Baking would prove the be the answer to the panic she saw in the eyes of all those men. The Laughing Bear was established with a goal of allowing those recently released inmates to have a chance upon getting out, not only at supporting themselves in the short term, but finding better paying jobs with benefits in the long term. One advantage for the newly released in this first stop is the fact that the other employees have walked in their shoes. They are surrounded by people who will help them succeed at freedom. And it starts at the top.
“They tell me they have to go see a parole officer, I go, cool, come back when you’re done, because they’re required to do that,” McAllister explained. “In most other jobs they wouldn’t let them off most likely, to do that. They’d have to arrange it. So we understand what some of their issues are, and they kind of come into a family here.”
Jones says it goes even farther than that.
“(They) give us clothes, give us food, make sure we’re all right. That we can take care of ourselves.”
How much difference is it making? Well consider the fact that most people who get out of prison go back in. The recidivism rate, as it’s called, is nearly seventy percent within three years of release according to the National Institute for Justice. Twenty-four people have worked at the Laughing Bear over the last three years. Only one has gone back to prison. That’s just a hair over four percent.
“And without a job and education, you’re going back. It’s just, if you can’t have a few dollars in your pocket, pay rent, pay utilities, buy yourself some food, then you will commit crimes to get same,” Mike Gann told us.
Gan would know. He was the deputy warden at the Farmington prison, and Kalen McAllister’s boss there, before retiring and taking the position of board president at Kalen’s bakery.
“It’s rewarding both for providing the employment and seeing the success rate, and frankly for the quality of product we put out. Lord we make some good stuff,” he said, unable to contain a laugh.
So what about all this draws the attention of a documentary film crew? Not so much the success as the good deed. The fil, “Second Chances” is part of a series produced by a group of Buddhist Documentarians called, “On Buddha’s Path: Compassion in Action.” What is being done here is giving hope to those who return to society with very little.
“In Buddhism we have a saying that for a bird to fly it takes two wings. One is wisdom and one is compassion and it takes both to fly,” McAllister said. “They walk out of there, sometimes with just the clothes on their back, and they’re supposed to make it.
“Some people come in with a lot of skill, some people have none. But we’re supportive,” she continued.
Jones reiterated that point. “I’m not used to freedom. You see you’re not used to being locked up because it’s not your walk. My walk, I’ve been locked up for a substantial amount of time throughout my life.”
The baked goods are available at places like Straub’s Groceries and St. Louis Cinemas. Growing the business will allow them to grow those good deeds.
“The more we can sell our product the more people we can hire. And people see films like this and they instantly contact us to fill out an application, to get a job here, and I would love to take every one of them in. But we’re limited,” McAllister said.
What is seemingly unlimitedis the potential for a program that is effective in helping those who get out to stay out.
“You cannot change anybody,” McAllister cautions. “There’s no way you can ever change a person, but if they’re in a compassionate environment and they’re doing something they enjoy doing and they feel successful and they feel valued, they’ll change themselves.”