By Rachel Bosworth
People with developmental disabilities face many challenges throughout their lives. A growing concern among the parents of these individuals is what their children will do after graduating high school. As a speech and language pathologist, and family coach and consultant, Shirley Ruch has worked with clients who have ADHD, auditory processing disorders, autism, and other developmental disabilities. “I have worked with the special needs population all of my life,” she shares. “A lot of my clients are long time clients, people I have worked with since they were three years old through their 20’s.”
As she works with many parents as well to provide counseling and training, Ms. Ruch has heard concerns of what their children will do after graduating high school. While taking a leisurely stroll with her dog one day, the idea struck her: a bakery. “I have a kitchen in my office, and baking is very therapeutic,” Ms. Ruch says. “Let’s put [the individuals] to work doing stuff they love to do and are motivated to do. It’s very educational, teachable, and repetitive.”
Ms. Ruch met with some parents in January 2016 to discuss the idea of a bakery and after receiving their support, she worked with a baker to develop some recipes. That spring, the South Fork Bakery opened. The wholesale bakery’s first season began in the kitchen at Hayground School. When they reopened earlier this year, South Fork Bakery began working out of Scoville Hall in Amagansett. Ms. Ruch says Hayground was a great start, but their new location allows more flexibility to grow and expand.
“I think [South Fork Bakery] was really one of the transformative experiences for my family because we have three children on the spectrum; two are very high functioning and one cognitively struggles a bit, and everyone was able to get involved on their own levels,” says parent Margery Mailman, who has three children that work at the bakery. “What surprised me is that I knew it would be a really supportive environment, but I was really blown away by how social it was.”
The community and comradery aspect is one of the most beneficial. Employees have the ability to be around other people, converse while they work, and enjoy fun work perks like company picnics and gatherings. “I try to foster a sense of community,” Ms. Ruch shares. “They are isolated a lot of their lives. This gives them a sense of success. I’ve heard from parents and kids that they’re so proud they’ve mastered a task. We give them a lot of chances.”
The pride is evident among those that work at the bakery as well. “I like working here because I like the cookies, they taste great,” says baker Geoffrey Brodrick. “I feel good making them. I know a lot of people like them and it gives me a sense of worth that I didn’t have at some of my previous jobs.”
Not only are the individuals immersed in all aspects of the business, everything from baking and packing to sales and marketing, but they are earning a paycheck as well. Ms. Ruch calls it an extension of the work she does with her clients in therapy that offers them opportunities in adulthood. They can be successful but also work at their own speed.
Products include oatmeal raisin/chocolate chip, gingersnap, chocolate chunky brownie, and blondie bars. “Goldberg’s has been a big supporter of us,” says Ms. Ruch of the one of more than 40 farmstands, markets, and shops that sell the cookies. “There’s an overwhelming support from the community. So many people say ‘yes,’ to the cookies. They have to be good too, it can’t just be about the mission.”
South Fork Bakery participates in many community events such as the festivals that take place in Sag Harbor and other local events throughout the summer. They have also been asked to have their cookies in goodie bags at the Food Lab events. “We give back and get ourselves known,” says Ms. Ruch.
“I like working here a lot,” says baker Niko Econopoulous. “I like making friends, I like being here. I like to learn how to label, learn how to bake, clean up, and do the right thing.”
For more information, visit southforkbakery.com.