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Uptown in the News  

December 29, 2004
A Clean Start for a New Life
Soap business helps women find future opportunity
By Angela Caputo, staff writer

Tucked away in a second-story office space along a commercial strip in the heart of Uptown, the wheels of industry turn quickly the week before Christmas as workers in a local soap-making factory work hard to meet the holiday deadline.

A group of more than a dozen women keep the assembly line rolling. Some gift-wrap fragrant and colorful glycerin bars, another scrubs residue out of a steel drum and talks about the satisfaction of hard work.

The workers enjoy a moment of harmony and talk openly about their work being more than just a job.

Unlike many businesses, the bottom line in this burgeoning workshop, the Enterprising Kitchen, 4545 N. Broadway, isn't money: It's people.

For Nayda Medina, a recent parolee from Cook County jail, that commitment has meant a second chance.

After hitting "rock bottom" and spiraling into a lifestyle that put her behind bars for six months, Medina said she decided it was time to put her life back together.

"I've always been the kind of person (that) when I set my mind to something, I do it," she said.

But getting back on track has been difficult, she adds. Released from jail with no money and barred from many jobs by employers that "Look at you like you've got an X on your back," Medina said her operations were limited. Then she got a break, a job offer at the small, women-run business.

Eight months into the work-based program,l Medina is using her experience to get back on her feet. She lives in a halfway house, works another part-time job as a translator and receptionist and has saved almost enough for a down payment on an apartment.

Hopes of regaining partial custody of her two teenage children and mending her relationship with her adult daughter keep the 40-year old going.

She says that she couldn't have done it alone.

After spending decades opening up side businesses while rearing a family, co-founder of the Enterprising Kitchen, Joan Pikas said she was inspired to open a new business that would provide opportunity for women such as Medina.

While working as a part-time GED course instructor in Evanston, Pikas said she became frustrated by the lack of prospects for many of our students.

"Someone led them to believe that if they passed the GED, then their lives would change," she said. "What I really thought they needed was employment while they were changing."

Pikas took the concept of opening a business to help people overcome employment challenges to other non-profits but they weren't interested. After researching other successful skill-training programs, she decided she was ready to go into business herself.

In 1996, the Enterprising Kitchen opening up across the street from the current Uptown location, but not for long.

A fire raged through the space later that year. "We lost everything and were homeless ourselves for a while." Pikas said.

During the next year, they moved to the current site and eventually expanded to take over the entire second floor.

Walking through many of the non-profit organizations in Uptown, talks of being down-and-out are pervasive. But the stories that come from the soap-making workshop, where the scent of glycerin hangs in the air, are filled with hope.

After leaving her home in Turkey more than two years ago, following an abusive husband to Chicago, Aruza Eren, 32, said her life took a turn for the worse. Her husband left her battered and alone in the strange city "with nowhere to go," she said.

Eventually Eren made her way to a North Side shelter for Asian women. But as an illegal alien, she was stuck between two worlds--unable to go home and without the skills to sustain her life here.

"The kitchen is like a mother, always with open arms," she said tearfully before her co-workers on the last day of production before Christmas. A comfort that is difficult to find when feeling as alone as she did.

Later, Eren said she shudders to think where she would be now without the job.

"I don't know," she said. "I have no idea.

To qualify for a job, potential employees are required to have stable housing, be in the process of recovery from drug or alcohol abuse if they have a problem, and demonstrate a commitment to change their lives.

"We're looking at women that are really motivated... and will use this to get a job with a sustainable living wage," co-Executive Director Lauri Alpern said.

The non-profit business, deemed a social enterprise, which netted more than $215,000 over the past year, plans to hire more people and boost sales even further. Last year, sales increased by more than 20 percent, according to Pikas.

Products are available in 300 retailers across the country, including Whole Foods and salons as well as an Internet store.

While organizers say that the program succeeds as a stepping-stone, challenges remain. The Enterprising Kitchen can only employ must more than a dozen women at a time and the need for work far surpasses available jobs. Graduates of the program often have a tough time finding jobs too.

"Finding employers and (post) employment for the women is a huge problem... That is our No. 1 challenge," Pikas said. "But we have to eventually push (our workers) from the nest," she adds.

For Medina the fall from the nest shouldn't be too far. After eight months she said she is ready to get on with her life. "I've made mistakes. I'm not perfect.... but I'm ready for a change."

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