Baking for a better future


photo by Lauri Wexler

Employees concentrate on baking an assortment of goods for their customers.

Aaron Waldman, Reporter

Employees at Sunflower Bakery, bake not only to give their customers delicious treats but to learn valuable skills as well. All the workers at Sunflower Bakery have learning disabilities. With extensive support, the Bakery provides the ideal environment for growth.

Sunflower Bakery co-founder and Executive Director Laurie Wexler and co-founder Sarah Milner decided they wanted people with learning disabilities to have more job opportunities because they knew people with learning disabilities. They had heard of a bakery in Virginia Beach that was helping adults with disabilities find jobs. When they visited this bakery, they realized how perfect the profession of baking is for employees with learning differences.

“Baking was one [option] that was a very good idea because it’s objective,” Wexler said. “You get tangible results. If you follow the recipe, you’re going to get what you set out to make.”

Wexler and Milner decided to start Sunflower Bakery in 2008. After a year, Sunflower Bakery was given 501(c)(3) status, which meant they were officially a nonprofit. In the spring of 2009, they started their pilot program of helping adults with disabilities in the Beth Sholom synagogue.

Sunflower Bakery focuses on the development of people aged 18 to 21 with disabilities because they tend to have fewer educational opportunities than people without learning disabilities. So far, the bakery has trained over 400 young adults and teens.

“The requirements and expectations that may exist academically and even socially in a college environment may not be appropriate for them,” Wexler said.

While Sunflower Bakery focuses on adults with learning disabilities, it tries to mimic other standard jobs as closely as possible. To initially prepare students for the jobs, the bakery conducts mock interviews and helps their students create resumes.

“It’s like college, and you start somewhere and you don’t necessarily know where you’re going to go, but it’s a wonderful foundation,” Wexler said.

Sunflower Bakery has had a big impact on the community. Prior to COVID-19, the bakery catered big events and was a great place to grab a treat. This impact has not gone unnoticed, as half of the bakery’s revenue comes from donations by the community.

In the past, the CESJDS Parents Association has given the teachers at JDS baked goods out of appreciation. JDS Parent Association Co-President Sarah Brenner said that it is important to help support Sunflower, as well as give back to the teachers.

“The work that the Sunflower Bakery does and the way that it supports the development of young people, we think is very in line with the school and the school’s values,” Brenner said.

Sunflower Bakery’s programs include the Pastry Arts Program, the Hospitality Employment Training Program, the Teen Program and the B’nei Mitzvah Program. The Pastry Arts Program teaches students how to bake, while the Hospitality Employment Training Program teaches students customer service and how to be a cashier. The Teen Program teaches teens how to bake, but is not specific to just teens with learning disabilities.

Freshman Ben Weiss was in the B’nei Mitzvah Program at Sunflower Bakery for his bar mitzvah project. The B’nei Mitzvah Program combines baking with educating program participants about their peers with learning disabilities. Weiss learned about Sunflower Bakery’s mission, what a nonprofit is and about people with learning disabilities. They also baked different kinds of sweets during the program.

“I like being part of the community, I like helping anyway I can, and I also like food a lot, so it’s the best of both worlds working [at Sunflower Bakery],” Weiss said.