Working side by side with Sweet Beginnings' Head Beekeeper, John Hansen, U-Turn Permitted graduate Thad Smith made a deep connection with a small but powerful part of the North Lawndale community - its honeybees. Thad describes his first experience working with bees: "I opened a hive and I just fell in love." That love has driven Thad to new heights. Starting in November 2014, after a year and a half of working as an apprentice and learning everything he could from John, one of Illinois' most revered beekeepers, Thad has launched his own business, called Westside Bee Boyz, which had previously helped manage the Sweet Beginnings apiaries with John as part Owner.
Despite his current success, Thad's life wasn't always on the right track. In 2010, after years of working in various jobs, Thad, his wife, moved to Joliet so that Thad could pursue a new career running a lawn care business. But when times got tough and money was scarce, Thad made some poor decisions that separated him from what he cared about most - his family and his job. He was charged with a felony and briefly incarcerated. Upon release, at 46 years old, Thad found himself in a desperate situation, alone and homeless.
It was hitting bottom - after jail time and a felony conviction - that inspired Thad to not only turn his life around but to change his attitude and aspire to something greater.
After his release from jail in February 2013, Thad moved into interim housing in the Pilsen neighborhood, at San Jose Obrero Mission. From there he began to piece his life back together, searching for stable housing and employment. Thad connected with NLEN where he enrolled in its flagship program, U-Turn Permitted (UTP). Because of his positive attitude and fresh outlook on life, Thad was elected president of his UTP cohort. He graduated in June 2013 and shortly thereafter was hired to work at NLEN's transitional jobs program, Sweet Beginnings.
And so began Thad's love of honeybees. "It's so fascinating. I can just stand there and watch 60,000 individuals who are one entity, working toward one common goal. It is all about the colony, making sure they survive and find a way to work together." The bees have taught Thad about the importance of community, working alongside others, and living a purpose-driven life. "Before I came to NLEN, I didn't network with successful people like I should have. Now I surround myself with successful people." Thad credits NLEN and Sweet Beginnings for providing him with a new network of meaningful relationships - his coworkers, customers, the NLEN staff, and his teacher and mentor, Mr. Hansen - all of who inspire him to stay on track.
Thad has since secured his own housing and reunited with his family. He is ever grateful for his wife of nine years: "I would not be the man I am today without her." He now has two grandchildren and takes his role as a grandfather very seriously. "It is a huge responsibility," says Thad. He hopes that his story will set an example and inspire his grandchildren to be the best that they can be.
In the meantime, Thad looks forward to his future with Westside Bee Boyz. Not only has Thad independently managed Sweet Beginnings' hives, he will also inspire change in those that come to NLEN and Sweet Beginnings seeking the very same help he once needed. "I believe God has a purpose for me and I am not going to leave until it is fulfilled."
John has been keeping bees for 39 years. After retiring from his career as a technical writer in 1992, John's beekeeping hobby became a small business. He keeps a few beehives of his own, but most of his business provides bee-related services to others.
Since 2006, John has worked continually with the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) and its wholly owned subsidiary, Sweet Beginnings, LLC. There, he teaches beekeeping to ex-offenders as an interim job for them to gain work experience, both in beekeeping and in manufacturing and marketing honey-based skin-care products.
John recently managed twenty-five beehive colonies at Sweet Beginnings' headquarters in Chicago; an additional seventy-five colonies at O'Hare Airport in partnership with the Chicago Department of Aviation; and six beehives at Wilbur Wright College, where John has taught beekeeping as part of the College's Continuing Education curricula. During 2012 John also managed 25 Sweet Beginnings beehives at Cook County Jail where he trained a class of 20 inmates as part of their pre-release program.
John is the past president of the Cook-DuPage Beekeepers Association. He is also a former president of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association. John can be reached at: