May-June 2021 | Food & Drink

Cookies & dreams

At Sunflower Bakery in Rockville, young adults with learning differences are stirring up success

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Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

On a Wednesday morning in March, workers dressed in white button-down bakers shirts, aprons and chef coats are scraping cake batter from bowls, kneading bread on floured tables and placing dough on baking sheets. The air is filled with sweet smells that intensify every time the oven opens.

“Hot rack!” someone shouts, moving chocolate chip cookies to a cooling area.

There’s more than just baking going on here—this is a teaching kitchen. And for every chef, there are just one to three students. The students in Sunflower Bakery’s pastry arts training program have a variety of learning differences and receive individualized, hands-on instruction to prepare them for future jobs at places like boutique bakeries and supermarkets. Sunflower also runs a hospitality employment training program and offers summer baking classes (in-person and virtual) for teens.

“We have found individuals with a range of abilities can be highly productive, loyal, advantageous, useful members of an employment team,” says Laurie Wexler, executive director of Sunflower Bakery in Rockville.

Wexler and Sara Portman Milner, the director of student services, co-founded the bakery—along with board member Dina Leener—in 2008. They saw a common problem for young people with special needs when support services disappear after age 21—often referred to as “the cliff.” Many needed help transitioning to employment and becoming advocates for themselves. At the same time, there wasn’t a kosher bakery in the western part of Montgomery County, and an analysis by business students at American University confirmed that there was a demand. The combined market needs were the genesis of Sunflower.

The enterprise started at Wexler and Milner’s synagogue, Beth Shalom in Potomac, two afternoons a week. Now, Sunflower’s full-time training kitchen and bakeshop operate with broad community support and serve about 60 young adults each year. Sunflower made several adjustments in 2020, including rearranging the kitchen to space out workstations, installing a camera so students could watch lessons on a television screen instead of crowding around a table, and moving away from party platters to individually wrapped items, as customer demand changed with COVID-19.

The Sunflower Bakery name was Wexler’s idea; the tagline—Caring is our main ingredient—was Milner’s. “That makes us stand out from other bakeries that are telling you about their taste or the beauty of their presentation,” she says. “We’ve got all those things—and we’ve got heart.”

Bethesda Magazine spent a day at Sunflower’s training kitchen and bakeshop in March.


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Sunflower co-founders Laurie Wexler (left in picture) and Sara Portman Milner, both of Potomac, stand just inside the entrance of the Rockville bakery in front of tiles that acknowledge those who donated to the building’s capital campaign. Sunflower tripled its size when it moved to a new facility in January 2020; bakery operations are supported by a mix of donations from individuals, foundations, corporations, county government, food sales and student program fees. (Sunflower also runs a cafe in the lobby of a North Bethesda office building.) Wexler, who’d worked in nonprofit programs and management, suggested the idea of the bakery to Milner, a social worker with experience serving individuals with developmental disabilities. Wexler had heard of a bakery in Virginia Beach that trained and employed people of different abilities. Milner loved the idea, but with one change: “They need to go get jobs in other bakeries,” she recalls telling Wexler. “If we employ them, that’s maybe six people with jobs. If we train people and move them out to other bakeries, we don’t have a limit to how many people we can get [into] the community. I’m all about inclusion.”


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Gary Copeland Jr. places cards with descriptions of the desserts in a display case at the bakeshop in Rockville. A student in the hospitality employment training program, the 19-year-old says he’s “enjoyed learning how to interact with customers and build up a healthy bond so next time they come in, we can have an easy chat.” Copeland, who lives in Gaithersburg, says he talks with his regulars about sports, holidays and their favorite items: “One customer absolutely craves the marble cake and comes in just for that.” During his six months of training, Copeland worked eight weeks as a paid intern at the bakery. His mother, Jocelyn Copeland, says her son has a greater sense of self-worth since being at Sunflower. “In school, the teachers and staff try their best with special education students. But no matter what you do, there is always a feeling you are not the same, you are different,” she says. “[Working as an intern], he is fulfilled as an adult, helping people, doing his job, earning money, gaining skills and seeing himself successful.” In April, Copeland started a job as a host at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville.


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Students in the pastry arts training program begin in the practice kitchen, learning the basics. Here, Dishon Scott, 20, gets tips from senior chef instructor Marion Pitcher as he pours batter for a vanilla cake. Since starting the training in January, Scott has learned to take public transportation by himself for the first time, traveling on a bus and two Metro trains to commute from his home in Washington, D.C. “He’s adapted really well and is more independent now,” says his mother, Flora Simmons. Pitcher was a pastry chef for several years at Clyde’s of Chevy Chase before coming to Sunflower five years ago to be an instructor. “It was time to give, that was my motivation,” she says. She enjoys the one-on-one teaching, which sometimes requires holding a student’s hand so they can feel the movement of the rotation while learning to use a spatula.


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Culinary Director Liz Hutter of Darnestown (center in picture above) helps 19-year-old Osemen Aigbedion of Bowie even out brownie batter. Behind them, 32-year-old student Jacob van Houter (left in picture above) and Cherilyn Lewis, chef instructor, roll out the crust for raspberry crumb bars. Osemen’s mother, Yewande, says the program is helping her daughter, who has autism, learn baking skills and how to communicate better with others. Osemen would like to open her own bakery someday. “Every single day she comes home excited about what she’s done,” Yewande says. “She is more confident now.”


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Student Jacob van Houter (above and below) of Potomac takes chocolate chip cookies from the cooling rack to package them. Since the pandemic, there has been an increased demand for individually wrapped items, often ordered by synagogues and families for special occasions or celebrations.

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny
Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Andrew Tucker, 20, puts sprinkles on the bakery’s signature sunflower cookies. “I’m thinking about making them even and having a good time,” says Tucker, who lives in Bethesda. The pastry arts training program provides individualized instruction; the amount of direction students need depends on their capabilities and what they’re making. The curriculum is customized as their strengths emerge and they begin to specialize in certain areas, says Liz Hutter, culinary director.

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Catrina Hainer (left in picture above) packages chocolate crinkle cookies with chef instructor Corey Bernstein. Hainer, who has autism, was introduced to Sunflower through its teen baking class, which she took for four summers. A visual learner, the 21-year-old Rockville resident has learned strategies to help her adapt in the kitchen, such as using a piece of paper to move down each line of a recipe to stay on track. “She’s come out of her shell and is becoming more independent,” her mother, Cathy Ennis, says. “Every day she goes in with a smile and comes out with a smile.”


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Joey Nowicki leads a session for the three students in Sunflower’s hospitality program, which the bakery started in July 2020. Students train for 18 weeks, learning front-of-the-house customer service skills, and the program culminates with a paid internship at the bakeshop and cafe. In this session, they’re reviewing nonverbal communication, including the importance of making eye contact. “This will help the students in life, whether it’s in a workplace or a social setting—[learning] how to interpret other people’s body language or tone of voice,” says Nowicki, an instructor who has a background in restaurants, management and sales. “I enjoy seeing the students’ growth from when they start our program until the last day when they leave—to see that spark lit.”


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Liz Hutter holds a brief meeting before interns Demba Cisse (left) and Ethan Edwards begin their shift. “My job is planning everybody’s time. It’s like you’re a conductor,” says Hutter, who has been at Sunflower for 10 years. At this meeting, she’s providing instructions and reviewing yesterday’s mishap: An intern forgot to put flour in a batch of banana bread, resulting in a concave, wet mess. “They make mistakes like any other place I’ve worked. It’s easy to omit a line,” she says. “It’s not that different. I really do try to run this kitchen like I run every kitchen. …We are encouraging, and we definitely make accommodations, but we are trying to give them real-life experience.” Edwards, 19, of Clarksburg, recently landed a job in the kitchen at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville.


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Instructors use hand-over-hand teaching to show students the proper way to create an indentation in a thumbprint cookie. Everyone learns in different ways, and some Sunflower trainees need tactile instruction to learn how much pressure to apply to cookie dough, or how to shape a crust. “It’s connected to their disability,” says Sara Portman Milner, director of student services. “The avenue of reading a recipe may not be available to them. The avenue of hearing the directions may not be available to them. The avenue of watching may not be as strong as the avenue of feeling. We try to utilize whatever is working best to help them be most successful. It doesn’t mean they can’t do the task—it means we have to teach them in a way they can learn to do it.”


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

Dishon Scott spreads jam over a crust for raspberry crumb bars—making sure it’s even and doesn’t spill over the edges, where it could burn. While there’s no tasting while they work in the kitchen, trainees do sample their creations when there’s an extra cookie or a mistake that’s still edible, Hutter says. As they progress through the course, they’re evaluated on their baking skills and work with Sunflower staff on connecting with the right employer to match their interests and abilities. Sunflower has partnerships with more than 50 local businesses, including small bakeries and large grocery chains. About 80% of Sunflower students find employment soon after graduation, often part time at first with the option of adding hours as they settle into the position.


Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny

The almond berry cake at Sunflower Bakery is gluten-free and a favorite among customers. The bakery sells a variety of breads, cakes and cookies. The menu rotates, for instance, with a pie season in the winter and specialty items around the holidays, such as Purim, when Sunflower sold 53,000 triangular hamantaschen cookies. Among the most popular items offered year-round: chocolate chip cookies and lemon bars.