“We can't change the world, but we can help people change themselves and grow and transform,” says one of the non-profit's founders
Jordan Scott-Geason loves baking chocolate chip cookies and key lime cheesecake. The 21-year-old learned her baking skills in a six-month intensive training program at Sunflower Bakery in Rockville, Md.
“We are a bakery, but we’re more than that,” says executive director Jody Tick, 52.
Sunflower Bakery, which was founded by a group of women who wanted to create skill-based, on-the-job training for adults with learning differences, is a non-profit social enterprise that imparts students with applicable real-world job skills and then helps them find employment. And they've been doing so for 15 years.
At first they operated out of Congregation Beth Shalom’s kitchen in Potomac, Md. and gifted baked goods to local synagogues.
“It just felt very right,” says board member Laurie Wexler, who was one of the founding members.
Now they have grown to two locations, Sunflower Bakery in Rockville, Md. and Sunflower Café in Bethesda.
The Pastry Arts program teaches both the life skills needed to work in a commercial kitchen as well as how to follow a recipe and bake. The hospitality training program teaches on-the-job customer service skills, including filling online orders and serving customers at the bakery’s café.
Since their start, they have trained about 550 people, or roughly 50 students a year from Maryland, DC and Northern Virginia, who graduate from their six-month intensive training programs.
They also offer a four-day program for high school students, in order to get a feel for the program and whether they'd like to join after graduation. About 32 teens participate each year.
“We can't change the world, but we can help people change themselves and grow and transform,” says one of the founders, Sara Portman Milner, 75. “We give them a chance to be the best they can be.”
Milner is a social worker whose younger brother has Down Syndrome. She devoted her career to creating inclusive programs. Milner loves baking and used to joke about opening her own bakery.
When Wexler approached Milner with the idea of opening a bakery and hiring employees with learning differences, Milner liked the idea — but she wanted to do more than just give jobs to a handful of people. She wanted their bakery to train people to get jobs elsewhere.
“I said the only way I would do it is if you train people to work in other people's bakeries or catering firms or restaurants or whatever," Milner explains. "You hire six people, that doesn't help a lot. But you train six people, 24 people, 40 people a year, then you're making a difference."
The Pastry Arts Workforce Development Program teaches students how to work in a fast-paced commercial kitchen. Every class starts with chocolate chip cookies, Milner says. Then they expand to cake pops, lemon bars, muffins, sticky buns, kolache, bundt cake, breads, a variety of challahs and more.
The bakery has an extensive menu, from cupcakes and sugar cookies to pies and tarts, and "the students make everything that you see,” Milner says. They make Kosher, dairy-free and peanut-free baked goods and also offer gluten-free and vegan options.
Students recently baked her granddaughter's gluten-free almond berry bat mitzvah cake. “People go crazy for it,” Milner says. “We do everything. We’re not your average Kosher bakery.”
To wit: “We hired non-Jewish pastry chefs and we said, ‘You can’t use butter, you can’t use milk, you can’t use sour cream, you can’t use cream cheese – but your products have to taste at least as good as the ones that do. They’re not hesitant to be adventurous."
The Hospitality Workforce Development Program offers on-the-job training in the café, teaching people how to take orders, packaging and shipping online orders, manage inventory and how to work in a fast-paced retail environment.
The key to the students' success, Milner explains, is that many people with special needs thrive on structure, "and recipes don’t change ... The recipes stay the same, and it's a lot of repetition ... and opportunity to get immediate results."
Students who graduate go on to work at bakeries and grocery stores, pet stores and amusement parks.
“It's just really impactful,” says Wexler. “I think that's the best part."
And even more beneficial than learning to bake, the founders say, is the sense of purpose and pride instilled in their students.
“Many times you hear a student say, ‘I can do this!' or they walk in and say, 'This changed my life,' " Milner says. “All their lives they heard what they couldn’t do, and now they can see and experience what they can do.”
That includes basic job skills like showing up on time, taking direction and keeping personal phone calls for after work. But it also includings learning how to speak up and advocate for themselves, Milner says.
“It's been amazing to see the transformation of our students," says Tick, who has a son with special needs. "A student that comes in is not the same person who leaves. You see how people blossom, how they become more independent, their self-esteem increases. That is just an amazing thing to see.”
Scott-Geason, the bakery student, says she was “hesitant at first,” about the intensive training program. But she loved working one-on-one with the chefs and learning new things.
“As I learn I get better, and they helped me get better,” she says. “The first time I made cookies, I did mess up. But I kept going. I kept remaking the recipe. And now I feel like that’s the easiest thing for me to make.”
Early in the program, she says she often arrived late. She was taught the importance of arriving on time every day, so she learned how to adjust her schedule. Her favorite part of the program was phase 2, where she got to bake every day. “I was like a rockstar,” she says.
Before the program, she says she was always shy, and she didn’t express herself or speak up for herself. But becoming confident in her baking abilities made her more confident in other aspects of her life as well.
“It was a really safe place for me,” she says.
Now she works full time at a bakery around the corner, demonstrating her ability to always follow the recipe, and ask, “What’s the next step?” When she’s not working, she’s baking. On Saturday, in her kitchen at home, she baked pumpkin-zucchini bread.
“I truly enjoy it,” she says. “It did a lot for me. I wouldn’t be where I am without Sunflower Bakery."
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