In a church kitchen in downtown St. Louis, Ashley Tovrea mixes by hand a yummy goody called Bear Candy.
It's made with homemade caramel and puffed corn — kind of a popcorn without the kernels. It doesn't just please stores like Straub's, which has a standing order of 60 packages a week for the flavorful snack, but it also helps provide jobs for people like Tovrea.
Like many former inmates of a correctional institution, Tovrea had a harder time finding jobs than most people. Her job, and those of other ex-offenders, was made possible because of a promise by Rock Hill resident Kalen McAllister.
A Buddhist priest, McAllister founded the Laughing Bear Bakery two years ago as a way to help former convicts of state and federal prisons find jobs. So far, she's provided employment for 15 ex-offenders.
"I came in for an interview. I left with a job," said Tovrea, who got out of a federal prison in Wasceca, Minn., in August. "She doesn't look down on you."
McAllister, 66, served as a prison chaplain at the Farmington Correctional Center from 2009 until she retired in April 2015.
"The men I worked with would come to me before being released and be panicked because they couldn't find a job," McAllister said. "I promised them that when I retired I would do something to create jobs."
She followed through on that promise by starting the Laughing Bear Bakery in November 2015 at the old Carondelet Bakery in Carondelet. It did well, so much so that it needed more space and moved to its current quarters at the Centenary United Methodist Church, 1610 Olive St., in August 2016.
"We've had some really good success stories," she said. One man is supervising a restaurant and is studying culinary arts at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park."
Laughing Bear Bakery alums work for the city of St. Louis, for a doughnut shop, for Dollar Tree and for an animal shelter.
Not all of the 15 ex-offenders who worked at the bakery did well. Three went back to using drugs. One of them went back to prison.
Nonetheless, McAllister hopes that her non-profit organization will serve more ex-offenders soon. Sales of Laughing Bear Bakery products are increasing in popularity. Considering that the 21 yummy things on its website include irresistibles like Happy Bear Chocolate Chip Cookie Pie, gluten-free Bear Naked Almond Muffin and Hardy Lombardi Cookie, why shouldn't they?
People work on Mondays and Wednesdays at the bakery, and McAllister is hopeful that the number of days will increase to five.
She envisions a time when people will do more than just mix and bake. A bigger company would include supervisors, people in the art department and people just out of culinary school.
"We're not full time yet, but we need to get our products out more," McAllister said. "Even though it's part time, it builds confidence in that person's work ability, in themselves, and teaches them proper work skills, how they get along with people."
Helping Laughing Bear to reach its goal is a board that includes George Lombardi, a former director of the Missouri Department of Corrections; Mike Gann, a former deputy warden of the Farmington Correctional Center; Theresa Bippen, who provides legal assistance; and Sue Jackson, an outreach specialist.
"A lot of our people have other second jobs," McAllister said. "It not only helps the individual person who's working here, but it touches their families, their children. It helps society because people aren't robbing you."
Laughing Bear products are available at places like Straub's, Farm to You in Washington, Mo., and a farmer's market at All Saints Catholic Church parking lot in University City. A complete list of places where Laughing Bear Bakery products are available and other details about the nonprofit are on its website, www.laughingbearbakery.org.