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Prison program teaches women how to be entrepreneurs
 sbodine  / 

VANDALIA — In the visitors room of the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center in Vandalia, nine women stand dressed in bright blue caps and gowns.

The group is the first to graduate from ASPIRE MO, a program designed to teach inmates the skills they need to become entrepreneurs and start a business after they are released.

In 20 weeks, they’ve learned to navigate market projections, advertising and feasibility studies, and at the end of the course, developed a comprehensive business plan.

Kellie Ann Coats, executive director of the Missouri Women’s Council, said the idea emerged during a meeting with Anne Precythe, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections. Precythe told her that Missouri has the fastest-growing female prison population in the country.

“That really struck me,” Coats said. “I was like ‘Wow, what is going on, and what are we doing to help them?’”

simona1215 / 

Zhihan Huang


Emily Kirchhoff(cq) has her photo taken with the executive director of Missouri Women’s Council Kellie Ann Coats(cq) and the director of Missouri Women’s Business Center Jessie Yankee(cq) on Wednesday, June 5. Kirchhoff made her business plan about hair salon, which is called “Rae’diance Salon”, focusing on microblading, bold color and extensions. “Growing up I always liked to do hair. I’ve done my sister’s hair, my mom’s hair – [it’s] just something I always enjoy making people feel better about themselves,” said Kirchhoff.

Coats adapted part of the Missouri Women’s Business Center’s LaunchU program, designed to create business plans for aspiring entrepreneurs, into the curriculum. The program also involves a strength-finder test and lessons from business owners. Coats also received help from private donors, the federal government and state agencies.

ASPIRE MO is the first in-prison program in Missouri that aims to teach entrepreneurial skills to inmates, address employment issues and reduce recidivism rates for female offenders, Coats said.

The Missouri recidivism rate for all prisoners is about 44%, according to a 2016 Missouri Department of Corrections report. Former prisoners often have trouble getting necessities like a job and livable wage.

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PHOTOS BY Zhihan Huang/Missourian


LEFT: Mary Maserang wears her graduation cap at her commencement ceremony on June 5. Maserang said her goal is to take over her family business after she serves her sentence at the correctional facility and open stores in other cities. RIGHT: Gowns and stoles drape over chairs for inmates to don before the ASPIRE MO program graduation commencement ceremony on June 5, at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center in Vandalia.


About half of former prisoners don’t have any earnings within a year of their release; those who do often tend to work less than a full-time job for minimum wage, according to a Brookings Institution study.

The ASPIRE program gives them additional skills to use after they are released.

“So we wanted to do something a little bit different than just typical job training per se because we needed them to have another tool in their toolbox when they re-enter into our community,” Coats said. “And that is potentially being their own boss.”

While ASPIRE is the only program in a prison to teach entrepreneurial skills, nonprofits like Kansas City-based Determination, Inc. also aim to guide former inmates through entrepreneurship after their release.

Other states in the country also follow this trend. In Texas, for example, there’s the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. It seems that program has produced positive results. According to an impact analysis of the program, 57% of PEP businesses formed during 2004-2018 remained open.

Christine McDonald, an advocate for incarcerated women and speaker at the graduation, believes programs like this have the potential to reduce recidivism and make a positive change.

“I mean, we want these women to leave and stay out but be equipped to leave and stay out,” McDonald said. “And this gives them an opportunity to move beyond the barriers society bestows upon incarcerated persons.”

simona1215 / 

Zhihan Huang


Lauren Avery(cq) prepares for the commencement ceremony at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center on Wednesday, June 5, in Vendalia. ASPIRE MO provides a 20-week training program for inmates to create business plan which they could potentially start in the future. Avery used the program to make her own business plan about personal and group fitness training, and she named her business “Zero2Fit”. “I started taking group fitness classes here to certify, and I want to certify on my own on personal training and cycling,” said Avery, “Not only have I found my true passion, but I have found the key to me being successful for the rest of my life.”

At the ASPIRE ceremony, graduates gave speeches about their proposed businesses. They ranged from fitness operations to dog training and retail outlets.

Graduate Lauren Avery said she wants to go into personal fitness in Wildwood with a company called Zero2Fit. She said it’s taken 30 years for her to realize her passion for fitness. Taking the class made her consider all the elements of starting a business.

“There’s so much that goes into it that you don’t even realize. The financial part, the getting started, getting your small business license,” Avery said. “Just things you forget about, you think ‘Oh, I’m going to open a business on this time on this year,’ but there’s so much more that goes into that.”

Janiece Moore, another graduate who has been incarcerated just over 21 years, says there’s never been a program like this. Moore said she wants to start a physical training business for the mobility-impaired.

Coats said ASPIRE MO will have two sessions each year. For now, the program will stay in Vandalia. But she said eventually, the program could expand to men’s and women’s prisons across the state.

“This program has been incredibly impactful not only for the women who completed the program, but for us, the people who are responsible for the care and safety of the population,” Precythe said. “It’s a reminder of their potential and their abilities when they leave this place.”

Rocheport restaurants and stores remain open, face decrease in tourism

As news of flooding in Rocheport escalated in late May, tourism started to dwindle, leaving businesses struggling to fill their shops.

“Everybody in town has been affected by slow business,” said Lynn Barber, who works at Stockton Mercantile, an antique and home decor store. “It has greatly impacted the sales in this store.”

Despite the misconceptions about flooding closing local businesses, Barber said stores are operating during their normal hours.

“Letting people know that we are open and we are fully functioning would help our little town,” Barber said.

Richard Saunders of Richard Saunders Inc., a home decor store, said business has also been slow because of flooding coverage in the media.

“Over the various news programs they talk about the terrible conditions and flooding,” Saunders said. “People just assume we have a problem and we don’t.”

Saunders said this isn’t the first time flooding coverage has caused problems for business. When he first moved to Rocheport in 1978, many reporters came to town and took photos of flooding on the Katy Trail.

“They were down there taking photos and we were up here doing business,” he said.

Saunders wants people to know that as far as business goes in Rocheport, “We’re completely fine and open.”

Resident and owner of Abigail’s, Todd Schapira, explained that his business has not been greatly affected due to the restaurant’s steady clientele.

He has, however, noticed a decrease in tourism, a driving force in Rocheport’s economy.

“Tourists are staying away,” Schapira said.

The sandbag barricade remains for now as rainfall continues to be in the forecast. The community is prepared to keep the formation of the sandbags until the water is no longer a threat.

Supervising editor is Libby Stanford.

USDA plan to move offices sparks concerns about research

TOPEKA, Kansas — The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it will relocate two research agencies’ headquarters to the Kansas City area, delighting Kansas and Missouri officials but intensifying critics’ fears that research will suffer and be less accessible to federal policymakers.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that the move will bring the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture closer to farmers and agribusinesses they serve. He also said the USDA would save about $20 million a year on rent and other employee costs, freeing up extra dollars for research.

Members of the Kansas and Missouri congressional delegations and the two states’ governors praised the USDA’s move, saying the research agencies are a good fit for their region. The USDA said nearly 550 of the roughly 640 jobs will move, and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, said they will pay between $80,000 and $100,000 a year.

But critics said the research agencies have lost veteran employees and been unable to fill vacancies since the USDA announced last year it was considering moving its headquarters. Opponents also argued that moving them will make it harder for federal policymakers to get objective research that might raise questions about President Donald Trump’s policies.

“This is a blatant attack on science and will especially hurt farmers, ranchers and eaters at a particularly vulnerable time,” said Mike Lavender, a senior manager for the scientist group’s Food and Environment Program.

The Economic Research Service examines a wide range of issues, including the rural economy, international trade, food safety and programs that provide food assistance to poor Americans. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture provides grants for agricultural research.

Perdue said the two agencies are the only parts of the USDA with no presence outside the greater Washington area, and 90 percent of the department’s employees live outside that region. He also said the agencies will be able to draw future staff from a large “agriculture talent pool” in the Midwest.

“We did not undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to enhance long-term sustainability and success of these agencies,” Perdue said in a statement. “The considerable taxpayer savings will allow us to be more efficient and improve our ability to retain more employees in the long run.”

Kansas State University and MU’s campus are roughly a two hours’ drive from the Kansas City metropolitan area. Also, the Kansas State campus is home to a billion-dollar federal biosecurity research lab that’s under construction.

Perdue said state and local officials offered $26 million in incentives, although the USDA did not provide details. The joint Kansas-Missouri bid beat out 135 others.

“It is always positive when our government can operate outside of Washington and closer to the people it serves,” said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican.

The move drew strong criticism from two Democratic chairwomen of U.S. House Agriculture subcommittees, Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands. They accused the USDA of rushing its decision and ignoring farmers, ranchers and researchers opposed to it.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers at the two research agencies, also denounced the plan. Employees at both recently unionized.

J. David Cox Sr., the union’s national president, said the move will make it harder for the USDA research agencies to coordinate with other science and research agencies.

“We will continue to work with Congress and other parties to fight this wrongheaded proposal, which is little more than a backdoor way to slash the workforce and silence the parts of the agencies’ research that the administration views as inconvenient,” Cox said in a statement.