After graduating from Walt Whitman High School, Bethesda’s Dillon Carone enrolled in a hands-on training program at Sunflower Bakery in Gaithersburg. The application process was intensive – but the program sparked his curiosity. His interest and enthusiasm led to participation in a three-day trial and then enrollment in the six-month pastry arts and baking program.
“I loved the program because every day I learned new skills — and now I’ve been hired as an employee here. Sunflower Bakery taught me to bake — and also gave me important tools for employment and for life,” he said.
Sunflower Bakery was the inspiration of Laurie Wexler, Sara Portman Milner and Deena Leener who understood the need for skill-based training facilities for young adults with learning differences. They opened their doors in May 2009 as a pilot program in kitchen space donated by Beth Shalom in Potomac. As they gradually increased in size and as their donations and funding grew, they were able to move to their current facility on Ziggy Lane in Gaithersburg — a space they are quickly outgrowing because of the success of their program.
Sunflower Bakery whose motto is “Caring is Our Main Ingredient” is the only inclusive training program in the Maryland that trains young adults for employment in pastry arts, baking and related industries. The organization is guided by Jewish values and focuses on the individual. Every five weeks, a new 10- week training class is launched with only two students at a time to allow for one-on-one instruction maximizing strengths and encouraging positive self-esteem and independence. Its sister program, Café Sunflower which is located at 6101 Executive Blvd, #115 in North Bethesda and partners with the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, gives students a variety of opportunities to experience employment in the restaurant industry. Both the bakery and the cafe teach students marketable and transferable skills for their futures.
“We have served over 175 young adults and teens including 75 Pastry Arts graduates, 77 summer program participants and 20 trainees and employees at Café Sunflower,” said Executive Director Laurie Wexler. “We are delivering on our mission to prepare our students for skilled, competitive employment through professional instruction, on-the-job training and job matching.”
Sara Portman Milner serves as director of student services and manages the enrollment program. “Our assessment process is intensive because we look for a good fit.” she said. “We accept young adults and teens with a wide range of learning differences including autism (diagnosed and undiagnosed), ADD, ADHD, receptive and expressive language issues, executive functioning and more. We are always seeking students who really want to be in our program, can follow directions and who are able to deal with a stimulating environment. Baking lends itself beautifully to people with certain disabilities. Our instructors are amazingly caring and provide a structured learning environment where each student experiences success while learning important job skills.”
Graduates are currently employed at Chouquette, Clyde’s Restaurant Group, Founding Farmers Rockville, Giant Food, Harris Teeter, Hot Breads Bakery & Café, Marriott Marquis, Nothing Bundt Cakes, Safeway, Stella’s Bakery Rockville, The Cakery, Wegmans Germantown, and Café Sunflower. Eighty-five percent of graduates secure employment within six months of their graduation.
Sunflower Bakery has captured the homemade baked goods market with over 16,350 purchases in 2017. The Jewish holidays are their busiest time — they sold almost 30,000 hamantaschen during Purim 2017. In addition to providing sweets during holidays, Sunflower is a full-service bakery which provides cookies, bars, pies, breakfast breads, cakes, cupcakes, cookie platters, and custom holiday cakes on a daily basis. They offer a “Sweets of the Month” subscription program for monthly dessert packages, gluten-free, peanut-free, kosher and seasonal treat, – and deliver weekly to seven locations in the D.C. area. They offer non-profits a 10 percent discount. Employee and graduate Dillon Carone said, “The lemon bars are absolutely my family’s favorite; they hope I will bring them home every day.”
At the graduation, Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said, “Imagine if each of us could be a mentor to another, someone who ‘lights up’ the potential in others, to help him or her flourish and thrive. And imagine if we went beyond just ‘lighting up’ so that he or she is no longer dependent on our inspiration. He is ‘lit up’ – as a Talmudic commentator says – ‘until the flame rises by itself on his own accord.’ That is what Sunflower Bakery does every day.
“By supporting, encouraging, training, and preparing young adults for employment, Sunflower lights up – and raises up – countless lives. You touch not only today’s graduates, but those who came yesterday and will come tomorrow. Not only your clients, but also their families. Not only the clients and families, but the customers. And not only the clients, families, and customers, but the whole community.”
Sunflower Bakery and Café need community support too. Support them through purchasing their sweets from their online menu, by stopping by Café Sunflower or Sunflower Bakery or through donations. Students and parents should also look on-line at the training programs and facilities. For more information, go to www.sunflowerbakery.org or call 240-361-3698.