Step inside the kitchen of Sunflower Bakery and you’ll notice the typical sights, sounds and smells of a professional kitchen in action. But there is one thing that sets this bakery apart from others in the area: its special training program.
Five days a week, two professional pastry chefs work one-on-one with young adults from the community who have developmental or other cognitive disabilities. Their goal is to teach them basic skills so they can become proficient enough to get jobs in the baking industry.
During the 12-month training program, students spend about six months receiving professional instruction at Sunflower followed by a six-month internship, either in-house or at a local bakery.
Sara Portman Milner and Laurie Wexler founded the non-profit enterprise in 2009.
Before launching Sunflower Bakery, Milner worked at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington developing their special needs program.
Wexler had almost two decades of experience in program delivery and fundraising for non-profit organizations.
"As a social worker, I met Laurie and she said to me one day, ‘What do you think about this idea of starting a bakery that would train people with disabilities to work in a bakery?’" Milner recalls, "and I said, ‘I’m all about that. I love baking, I love working with people with special needs to give them opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise, let’s try it.’”
They started the bakery as a pilot program, and it grew from there.
Perfect career choice
Most of their trainees, who range in age from 18 to 27, are transitioning from school to the workplace. Sunflower is there to help ease that journey.
They have a variety of disabilities, from language processing difficulties to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bi-polar disorder to mild intellectual deficits.
Because of their challenges, it usually takes them longer to learn and process information. Milner says that’s why baking can be a perfect career choice, since it involves a lot of structure and repetition.
“This provides a socially acceptable way to get a job that you learn skills that are valued and needed, and you get paid with the structure built in,” says Milner.
Rachel Easterling, 23, has been working at the bakery on a part-time basis since April of this year and says working with the bakery staff has helped her gain confidence.
“The way I am, they’re so patient with me. I feel like I will learn more here than anywhere else because they take their time with you, they’re not too busy, it’s like one-on-one with you. But if I go somewhere else everybody’s just too busy.”
Trainee Verred Joharie, 21, has a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome, a disorder on the autistic spectrum. People with the disorder often have difficulty interacting with other people and adapting to new environments.
But Joharie says her training at Sunflower has taught her to be more self-assured.
“At the beginning I was unsure. I was confused, I was anxious. Now, since they’ve helped me, it’s like I can open my eyes to the world and see what I want to do, how the world works, including working environments. I want to put myself out there, but I know it’s going to take a little bit more time for me.”
Into the workforce
Joharie was one of five students to graduate from Sunflower’s training program this past September - the first group to complete the program since it began.
The aspiring young baker did so well that Sunflower hired her - for pay - right after she completed her internship at a local caterer.
The other graduates also have promising futures in the baking industry.
Milner says the training program has been life changing for many of her students.
“When we started Sunflower bakery, we knew we wanted to try to give people opportunities," she says. "We had no idea how phenomenal the impact would be on trainees. And we’ve had people who’ve turned their lives around.”
Milner says she hopes to be able to expand her bakery from the industrial setting where it’s currently located and add another site, with a full storefront and café, where trainees can further develop their culinary skills.