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A Sense of Community at Home and Abroad

Askinosie Chocolate Helps Kids Learn About the World Outside Springfield

 

On today’s edition of our series,  the business and business practices of Shawn Askinosie of Springfield based Askinosie Chocolate , to improve the quality of life for kids in the Ozarks and overseas.  I’m Mike Smith, and I recently visited with Shawn Askinosie at his East Commercial Street chocolate factory to learn more: (SOUND of Universal Refiner mixing chocolate )

Shawn Askinosie says the short history of his chocolate factory began in 2005.  Then while transitioning out of a 20 year career as a criminal defense lawyer, he expanded on an already existing interest in chocolate and visited regions of the Amazon to : “Explore how farmers can influence the flavor of chocolate.  I came back and bought this building, and we renovated it for about a year, and I sold my first chocolate bar in 2007. We now sell our chocolate to about 500 specialty food stores around the country and we also export our chocolate to some countries around the world.  The mission of our business is to make great chocolate, to serve the farmers we buy cocoa beans from, and we want to serve the people in our own neighborhood and our community. We source cocoa beans in Honduras, Philippines, Tanzania, and Ecuador, and we direct trade with farmers.  I go there myself to these countries and source cocoa beans from these little villages, pay the farmers directly, and then we use “Jack Stack Open Book Management” to share our financial statements with not only the people in our factory, but the farmers up stream and make them part of this process.  We translate our statements to whatever language they need, and then share profits with them.  I’m so glad we were able to be here on Commercial Street.  We really have tried to integrate ourselves into the lives of the children in our neighborhood.” 

James Grandon is Principal of Boyd Elementary School, which is located just a couple blocks away from Askinosie Chocolate:  “That’s correct.  Yeah when Shawn Askinosie was beginning his vision for his chocolate factory on Commercial Street, he approached me and indicated he had a vision that he wanted the factory to belong the community as much as it belonged to him.  He wanted the children to feel like this was a place that was their chocolate factory. And a part of that was making a connection with the elementary school in the area and the children who live in the neighborhood.”

Shawn Askinosie calls that connection “Chocolate University” and its student body includes kids from Boyd Elementary, Pipkin Middle School, and Springfield High Schools.  “Starting with Boyd Elementary, and we’re in the 5thgrade there and have been for years, and we’re involved in every unit of their study.  For instance, they were here last week studying machines.  What better place than a chocolate factory for kids to study machines!  When they’re in other units of study like exploration, we will go there and talk about the places we go to source cocoa beans.  The goal is twofold.  Number one is we want to teach them about socially responsible businesses.  Secondly, we want to teach them about a world beyond Springfield.”    

Boyd Elementary Principal James Grandon says: It’s broadened their view of the reality of the world, and brought it all home to them.  The conversations that come back from Shawn’s visits are extremely poignant to our students.  Many of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch and have challenging situations of their own, but it is put in a different perspective when you see someone who doesn’t have a school, or books or paper.  They often times don’t have a family.  The partnership with Askinosie Chocolate has been a perfect fit with the unique curriculum we run.  Really the point of what we try to teach the children is more than academics, it’s about taking action to make the world a better place.”

Another component of “Chocolate University” is found about a block away from Askinosie Chocolate, at what is essentially a homeless shelter for families; The Missouri Hotel, where around 80 children can be found on any given night.  With direct funding from Chocolate University and help from generous donors, kids who stay there now have access to a computer lab in the hotel.  Askinosie chocolate designed the lab and acquired and installed the needed computers and furniture.

Shawn Askinosie says there is a Chocolate University Club at Pipkin Middle School:  “Anybody can join it, and it’s primarily a relationship between Pipkin and Malagos elementary school in Davao Philippines.  They learn about each others culture, what their schools are like, what their parents are like and what their worlds are like.  The Pipkin kids raised money for the Malagos school to buy a computer.  It was the first school in Davao, a town of 3 million people to get a computer and a connection to the internet, so there is a real sense of social responsibility when these kids are finished with the middle school program.”

Shawn Askinosie says the Chocolate University program for high school juniors is the most evolved and has most of his attention:  we selected 12 students from 70 applicants to embark on a bean to bar experience that would let them really understand what it’s like to be a part of the business.  They spend one week with us on the Drury University campus to learn all aspects of the business.  They learn about Swahili, and Tanzanian culture, and all of these things to get them prepared to go home to pack for a day, and then come with me to Tanzania.  It’s a life changing experience for these students, and we pay their whole way.”

The trips to Tanzania are funded 100% through fees collected from public and privates tours of the chocolate factory, donors from across the country who are impressed with the program, and The Chocolate University Fund with The Community Foundation of the Ozarks.  Shawn Askinosie says there’s no doubt the program, along with his fair and direct trade business practices are making a difference in the towns and villages where he sources his beans.  One such example can be found in the village of Tenende Tanzania:  “There’s a high school there with 1,100 kids, 10 teachers, no textbooks, and no electricity.  You can’t learn like that.  And by the way, these students only eat one meal a day.  The Rotary Club of SE Springfield and Askinosie Chocolate each raised $5,000 to buy math science and English books.  We raised more money to buy projectors and a generator for the school, and to dig a deep water well.  Now the whole village of 2000 people has clean water.  It’s an experience that can be summed up like this:  On our first trip one of our students wrote a text message back to his mother which said this:  “This is the best day of my life”.  Now, I don’t need a study to tell me when a teenager sends a message like that back to his mother, I know we’re on to something.  I know we’re making a  difference.”  

For the Sense of Community Series on KSMU and ksmu.org, I’m Mike Smith.