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'From this point forward': Downtown bakery provides new hope to returning citizens

Kalen McAllister (left) and Pete Wallace (right) are the founder and kitchen manager of the Laughing Bear Bakery.
Kalen McAllister (left) and Pete Wallace (right) are the founder and kitchen manager of the Laughing Bear Bakery.

When Kalen McAllister worked as a Buddhist chaplain at Farmington Correctional Facility, she began to notice a troubling pattern among inmates nearing their release dates.

“[The inmates] were panicked … They were saying ‘Okay, when we get out, what are we gonna do? We can’t find a job… we’ll be on the streets,’” she recalled while talking with host Don Marsh on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

The individuals McAllister met with understood that – devoid of critical resources like job opportunities and support networks – it might not be long before they ended up back behind bars.

The Laughing Bear Bakery in downtown St. Louis is the product of McAllister’s decision to take matters into her own hands. She opened the bakery after she retired from the prison in 2015, and today the nonprofit shop serves up delicious cookies, pies and its signature “Bear Candy” to individuals and to stores across the city and beyond.

The bakery’s employees all have one critical characteristic in common: a felony record.

Pete Wallace, kitchen manager of Laughing Bear Bakery, joined the conversation to discuss his own experience reentering society following incarceration.

He explained, “Having a felony restricts you from employment. It restricts you from housing – voting, in some cases.”

“You just kind of get rejected at every single turn,” he added.

McAllister aims to change lives and reduce recidivism through a nonjudgmental approach to reentry reform. She does not ask – nor, she stressed, does she care – what crime her employees committed.

“On our application, we don’t ask what they did,” she said. “We ask when they got out and if they have any baking skills.”

McAllister endeavors to provide her employees – individuals she considers like family – with the self-worth to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.

“We really want people to feel good about themselves,” she said. “And I think that’s what’s gonna change everything.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan, and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Xandra Ellin is so psyched to join the St. Louis on the Air team as this fall’s production intern! Xandra graduated from Wesleyan University this spring with a degree in Psychology and American Studies. She found ways to incorporate a passion for radio into her academic pursuits, with an honors thesis that dealt with the psychological and sociocultural phenomena that have historically made localized radio a viable mechanism for social change in American communities. Xandra’s career in public radio began at her college radio station, WESU, where she was the Public Affairs Director by day and a music DJ by night. She has also had two production internships prior to this one: one at WYPR in her home city of Baltimore, MD in 2017 and another at WNPR in Hartford, CT in 2018. When she's not at KWMU, Xandra spends her time going for runs, watching bad reality television, and serving up some quality local artisan brews through her side hustle at the Craft Beer Cellar in Clayton.