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Teaching People with Disabilities to Bake: by Sara Milner and Sunflower Bakery

L-R: Sara Portman Milner, teen Sunflower program participant, Chef Marion Pitcher, smiling together with their arms around each other inside a kitchenSunflower Bakery is a very popular kosher, pareve Bakery serving the Greater Washington DC Metro Area. We produce unique and delicious pastries, including new menus for all seasons and holidays. Our products are sold at our Café Sunflower in a warm and welcoming environment with extraordinary customer service. Producing outstanding products is one of the keys to Sunflower’s success; producing skilled, well-trained employees for other local food establishments is our raison d’être.

Sunflower Bakery and Café Sunflower are dedicated to providing skilled job training and employment for adults 18+ with learning differences in pastry arts, production baking, barista service and front-of-house operations. Since 2010, Sunflower Bakery has produced 81 Pastry Arts graduates and 10 graduates of our Café Sunflower Employment Training Program. The employment rate of our graduates is high above the 19.1% national employment rate for individuals with disabilities. In fact, of this spring’s graduating class of 14 Pastry Arts students, 88% secured employment within six months of graduating!

Logo for Sunflower Bakery Caring is our main ingredientSunflower began out of the concern of a small group of Jewish parents and professionals who believed there needed to be more opportunities for skilled training leading to employment for those individuals with learning differences, including a number of whom are on the autism spectrum. With four women writing checks for $500 each for ingredients and supplies, and using loaned kitchen space in a local synagogue, Sunflower was born.

To date, Sunflower bakery has served over 300 adults and teens in our young adult employment training programs, pre-employment teen exposure programs and Café Sunflower internship program.

Students who train in our Pastry Arts and Café Sunflower Employment Training programs come to us from throughout the Greater Washington DC area. They all have one thing in common. They all have learning differences that have challenged them throughout their educational experiences. At Sunflower, we recognize that there are many “hidden” disabilities that make it that much harder to find appropriate training and employment that address such learning needs.

The struggles that our students have experienced throughout their lives have often left their mark. Some have been estranged from the Jewish community, because they worked hard, yet could not keep up with their peers in religious school and were left behind. Their life experiences have been riddled with failure and lack of acceptance in both the Jewish and larger communities. At Sunflower, they are given a rare opportunity to learn in the way they learn best, at a pace that is individualized to their needs, in the heart of the Jewish community. From Proverbs we learn, “Teach each child in his own way.” We have extended this to “Teach each child in their own way even as they get older; they will still need the same.”

Our students grow and learn not just to bake or wait on customers, but also to believe in themselves and their abilities, to learn the “soft skills” needed to sustain employment and navigate more successfully in their daily lives. Yes, they produce beautiful and delicious products that are served at weddings, bar mitzvahs, kiddush in many congregations, meetings, conferences and more. They provide excellent customer service, serving up Sunflower’s pastries, giving of themselves, greeting customers by name and serving up meaningful relationships with the community members who frequent the Café because it’s the customers’ “feel good” place.

We have been taught that the highest form of tzedakah, the pursuit of righteousness, is helping people become self-sufficient. Sunflower knows that if we give someone a cake, they will enjoy dessert for a day. If we teach someone to bake, they’ll enjoy a career for a lifetime!

Sara Portman Milner, LCSW-C, is the Co-Founder and Director of Student Services at Sunflower Bakery. She works to develop and implement innovative bakery and café employment training programs at Sunflower Bakery and Cafe Sunflower. In addition, she shepherds students and their families from initial inquiry throughout the training program. Sara has 45+ years of experience in the disability field.

In our Jewish Disability Perspectives newsletter, RespectAbility welcomes a wide spectrum of voices. The views expressed in each Jewish Disability Perspectives contribution are those of the guest contributor.

Meet the Author

Debbie Fink

Debbie Fink was the Director of Community Outreach & Impact for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities.

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