St. Louis bakery offers second chance to ex-cons

A former prison chaplain started "Laughing Bear Bakery" as a way to give a second chance to women and men who just get out of prison.

Inside Centenary United Methodist Church are the essential ingredients for second chances.

None of the workers with the Laughing Bear Bakery have been on the job more than a few months but they are cooking up some delicious treats.

"We have everything from scratch," said head baker Kalen McAllister. "I mean, we do our key lime and we squeeze the limes."

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To work here, baking experience is not required. The only thing you will need on your resume is a criminal record.

"We interview them and we see potential," said McAllister.

McAllister, who is also the founder, is an ordained Buddhist priest and a former chaplain with Missouri Department Corrections. After retiring, she started the bakery to provide a starting point for recently released ex-offenders.

"A job like this giving them some freedom and responsibility, not to mention some income helps re-establish them with the community emotionally. They become people again instead of numbers," explains Mike Gann who was with the Missouri Department of Corrections for 24 years.

"My specialty is the cherry pie. That's my specialty," said Leah Douglas.

Douglas, 25, would rather not talk about the reason she spent 11 months in the county jail but when it comes to her guilt she doesn't sugar coat it.

"I had so much anger built up inside me from not having my parents growing up," she said.

For 24-year-old Madeline McFarland, the problem was drugs. And the end of her sentence was not the end of her troubles.

"We go into other jobs and immediately as soon as you check the box that you're a felon they don't even look at your application. It's over from that point on," she said.

And 29-year-old Ashley Tovrea who was just released from prison this month agrees.

"Everybody's got a certain judgment about somebody that's been locked up," said Tovrea.

Laughing Bear's recipe is to hire ex-cons at higher than minimum wage but right now it's only two days a week. The goal is for employees to graduate to other jobs.

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"If we can make a difference of offenders then we make a difference in our community safety," explains George Lombardi who is the former Director of Corrections in Missouri.

The bakery sells their goods at Farmer's Markets and even Straub's grocery store and they're looking to grow. In this kitchen, knead isn't only spelled with a "k".

"We need to be here 5 days a week because we're starting to make an effect on people's lives," McAllister said.

And without a job, McAllister knows that ex-cons can be as fragile as the crust on her pies. That's why she's determined to do even more.

"She lives her life for the betterment of others. You don't find many people like that," Gann said.

"Nobody has ever called me back (for a job) or anything and she called me back the next day and I really appreciated it. She never gave up on me," Douglas said through tears.

A first step to a second chance. Kalen McAllister and the Laughing Bear Bakery, serving up slices of hope.

"Kalen is a very special soul, "says Lombardi.

If you'd like to support Laughing Bear Bakery, click here.