BEE boutique opened the doors of its Sandy Springs location last weekend. While its carefully crafted layout has the look and feel of a typical department store, its underlying social significance makes it much more.
“The bottom line is every dollar spent goes toward overhead and paying the salaries of our sales associates,” said O’Neal-Kyles. “If they just volunteered, that wouldn’t be employment.”
That distinction makes all the difference for all involved. The boutique is an extension/transitional offshoot of Sandy Springs-based Every Woman Works, the nonprofit O’Neal-Kyles — aka “Miss Tillie” — founded to uplift the downtrodden after retiring from her longtime telecommunications executive post.
The nonprofit was borne of its founder’s rallying mantra to “move women from dependency to self-sufficiency” through its flagship service model, BEES — Busy, Empowering/Educating & Employing Students — program.
Its students, all women, include those recovering from substance abuse, victims of abuse, veterans and those transitioning from the penal system. Moreover, many of them have the added burden of non-permanent housing.
“There is a whole universe of women out there with children who have no clue how to break the cycles of self-destruction and poverty,” said O’Neal-Kyles.
It is here that her aforementioned admiration of the buzzing insect comes into play.
“The bumblebee, aerodynamically speaking, should not be able to fly — its body is too big, its wings to small,” the 69-year-old said. “The women we serve seem programmed with a [defeatist] belief system, which erodes one’s self-esteem and causes one to lose hope.
“But, like the bumblebee, improbable does not mean impossible.”
To that point, 98 percent of women who complete O’Neal-Kyles’ program secure employment.
Sales associates will work in their posts for 90 days, acquiring retail and customer service skills along the way.
Placement in similar positions at high-end department stores is the long-term objective. Until then, handling and selling the store’s donated name-brand wares — purses, shoes, suits and scarves among them — will occupy much of their time.
Meanwhile, their chief mentor, despite approaching 70, will be out and about working on their behalf. O’Neal-Kyles is hands-on, from recruiting talent to establishing corporate partnerships with the likes of Kimberly-Clark, G.E. and Cbeyond.
Volunteer Kim Knapp said she marvels at O’Neal-Kyles’ resolve.
“She’s [positively] impacted the recidivism rate in Atlanta,” said Knapp. “She’s just a force of nature.”