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State rolls out entrepreneurial program for inmates

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Lebanon native Brenda Ramsey has a dream of opening a restaurant in her hometown. Only problem, she’s currently an inmate at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia.

A new state program aimed at women incarcerated in prison is designed to help her someday achieve that dream. Ramsey graduated this summer from the Aspire MO program that guides participants onto the path of entrepreneurship.

“My restaurant is going to be based on special diets, for people who are lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, diabetics and things like that,” said Ramsey, who’s set to be released early next year. “I didn’t really know how to go about doing that, so when I heard about the Aspire program, I thought, ‘There’s my chance.’”

Aspire MO is a collaborative 20-week program of the Missouri Women’s Business Center and state Department of Economic Development’s Missouri Women’s Council. The cohort’s June 5 graduation in Vandalia had Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe and Missouri first lady Teresa Parson among those in attendance as guest speakers. Parson also participated as part of the program curriculum, speaking with the cohort earlier this year during a financial literacy session.

“We wanted to do something that was innovative, something out of the box and a different approach to one of Gov. [Mike] Parson’s initiatives, which is workforce development,” said Kellie Ann Coats, Missouri Women’s Council executive director. The second of two planned cohorts for this year started July 24, she added. Class sizes are capped at 10, with prospective participants required to apply for the pilot program.

Aspire MO’s curriculum is largely based on Missouri Women’s Business Center’s LaunchU program, a business planning course developed at Southeast Missouri State University. Soft skills classes also are part of the weekly sessions held over a five-month span, covering participants’ strengths and weaknesses via the CliftonStrengths assessment. Classes also cover business and professional vocabulary, professional attire and etiquette, business concepts, resume building and financial literacy.

Graduate goals
At the graduation ceremony, Ramsey pitched the business plan for her restaurant, dubbed Aunt B’s Cafe.

Another pitch among the nine graduates was Lorie Barnes’ Fido’s Fundamentals, a mobile dog training business. A Springfieldian who began serving time a decade ago, Barnes has been working for six years in the DOC’s assistance dog program, called Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities.

“I train dogs and I love it,” she said. “This is what I want to do when I get out.”

Barnes received a 15-year sentence for first-degree involuntary manslaughter in connection with a fatal drunk-driving wreck, and she’s eligible for release in February 2022.

Barnes said she had no idea how to run a business prior to Aspire.

“They helped me bring this to life,” she said. “I know it will be hard, but I can do this. And they gave me that confidence.”

Barnes said her startup costs are only in the $2,000-$3,000 range, since it’s a mobile business.

For Ramsey’s health-conscious restaurant, the price of entry is much higher. She anticipates a needed investment of $150,000-$200,000.

Ramsey said she learned people aren’t always thinking about the money it takes to get everything in motion – including insurance costs and fees for filing necessary paperwork.

“I was impressed with the way they handled teaching us how to do all of that,” she said. “They went above and beyond what we expected from them.”

Ramsey is currently incarcerated on a second-degree arson felony, and she’s eligible for release Feb. 23, 2020. Both she and Barnes intend to return to their respective cities upon release from prison.

Aspire for the future
The estimated program cost is $30,000, Coats said, which funds two cohorts and a total of 20 participants. That includes $20,000 in grants from the Division of Workforce Development and Central Workforce Development Board, and another $10,000 from private donations. Hawthorn Bank, Huber & Associates Inc. and Huebert Builders Inc. were among the donors for the first year’s cohorts.

“These are real people who have worked very hard to get where they are and earn their dollars that are investing in them personally,” Coats said. “And that was very impactful for the ladies. That’s something they took away from that.”

She noted the annual cost is essentially a discounted sum as she and others contributing to the program, such as Missouri Women’s Business Center Director Jessie Yankee, are taking on the work as part of their job duties.

According to the state DOC, 18,000-20,000 people are being released from the Missouri prison system every year. Coats said it’s often hard for returning citizens to find viable work because of their criminal record. However, because of the low unemployment rate in Missouri – currently 3.5% in June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – employers might be a bit more open-minded to giving ex-inmates a second chance, she added.

“We want them to get gainfully employed,” she said, meaning a full-time job with benefits and insurance. “We want them to not just earn a wage but earn a living wage.”

Barnes and Ramsey take solace that they won’t be on their own when they eventually leave prison. Connections forged with agencies in the Aspire program will serve them in the future through job connections or help with finding housing or loans, Ramsey said.

That’s part of the intent of the program, as Coats said it’s not realistic to think all the graduates will walk out of prison and start a business.

“We want to give them the tools so that when they’re ready and find themselves in a position to potentially follow their dreams – if that is their dream – then they’ve got a business plan to do it with and they have a network of people that are willing to help them,” she said.

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