Podcast Episode 80 The average person has between 12-15 jobs in their work life. This makes developing transferable skills an essential part of any employability training. A great example of how to make this happen comes from Sunflower Bakery. This week’s guest Sara Portman Milner, co-founder of Sunflower Bakery, shares their story as well as offering advice to anyone thinking of starting a similar enterprise.
Sara details what Sunflower Bakery does to help young people with additional needs develop transferable skills which they can use to help them gain employment once they finish their training. She explains exactly how the different aspects of the training program works. Sara also talks about the ways in which the training programs build confidence in young people while focusing on helping them in a way that works best for their individual needs.
Sara shares her top tips from her experience with Sunflower Bakery for anyone considering starting a similar enterprise, including finding the right people to help within building the enterprise and also reaching out to the local community. Sara’s main advice, though, comes back to just starting. The story of Sunflower Bakery serves as a reminder of how true the saying is: every journey begins with a single step.Show Full Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to Episode 80 of the Journey Skills podcast. As you might have noticed the podcast temporarily disappeared for a couple of weeks because like all of you listening when we went into lock down, it took a while to get used to this new normal. But we’re back now and sharing another great story and actually a solution as well.
Before I get on with this episode, I want to share a couple of my own thoughts on this new world that we’re living and how that will impact on Journey Skills, at least how I think it will impact on Journey Skills in the long run. I don’t know your individual circumstances but as a parent of a young person with additional needs there are some unique challenges that we all face but we are finally getting into a new weekly routine. And if you haven’t found one for you which are Wix on YouTube, I can thoroughly recommend that as one way to start your day. So we are in routine and actually from my point of view, this is giving a me a lot of time to think about the bigger picture in terms of what Journey Skills was started for. And as you probably already know, three things that Journey Skills is all about which is relationships, work, and daily living and we want to look at how we can join all those things together and help people create a way that we can all move forward and help our young people become independent. So closely it’s been good for me in a sense that I’ve been able to spend some time thinking about how that might be achieved.
One of the things I’ve known just here in the UK at least is being this growing sense of community. So I’m kind of hopeful that that’s going to make a difference in the way that people maybe see the world. Of course the economic impact of this pandemic is going to be pretty major and I suspect would affect many of the charities that work with young people with additional needs. And I think this is all very relevant in this episode where I’m talking to Sara from Sunflower Bakery in Maryland. She talks about funding and a need for self-funding and not to be over relying on charity donations. She also talks about the importance of community and people in local community supporting enterprises. And there’s actually some really high value stuff at the end of this, I think, because she gives her top tips or what they have learned at Sunflower. And I think it’s worth listening just for those top tips because if you are a bit like me and thinking “Well actually the time is right to start something” then these tips are really, really useful.
DEBRA: Today I’m talking to Sara Portman Milner who’s a co-founder of Sunflower Bakery which is based in Rockville in the USA. Welcome, Sara.
SARA: It’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
DEBRA: Can you, first of all, tell me a little bit about yourself and then also about Sunflower Bakery and how it all got started?
SARA: I am a professional social worker by training and also I’m the sibling of a 57-year-old man with Down syndrome. I historically have worked in the inclusion of the individuals with disabilities my whole life and Sunflower Bakery was an outgrowth of my passion to give as many opportunities as possible for individuals with disabilities to find meaningful employment. Our nonprofit Sunflower Bakery and Cafe Sunflower dedicated to providing skilled job training employment for adults 18+ in pastry arts, production baking, barista service and front of house operations.
In 2008, six women, some were professionals in the disability field, moms, interested community members got together to discuss the lack of opportunities for meaningful skilled employment. When we first began to organise, we were keenly aware that federal law in the US required inclusion in public schools but after graduation, then what became of the individuals who are on the autism spectrum, had severe learning differences, communication difficulties or significant attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. What happened then? And we felt that baking would be a great match for skilled employment for a lot of folks with cognitive disabilities who require structure, repetition and learning by showing and doing rather than by reading and researching.
We met with individuals from around the local government county government in the state of Maryland. We also met with private and public disability professionals, work service agencies, and embassy groups to see if they would buy-in for referral and collaboration. We’ve had phenomenal community support I must say and I think part of that was because we laid our groundwork. We’ve even had some market research done. We knew we wanted to operate as a not for profit entity and we were also very aware that we needed to have an income stream as a base in order to attract donors, foundations and government funding sources to remain viable.
In 2009, we boldly started Sunflower Bakery by four of us contributing $500 each to hire a very part-time professional baker and buy us some basic supplies. A generous individual donated money for a sturdy electric mixer. We convinced an area congregation to allow us for use of their kitchen space for 3 hours, 2 afternoons a week and we began a small pilot program offering free training to a few adults with a variety of learning disability needs to see if the concept would even work. The concept did work and within 6 months we outgrew the space and time allotted. We received our first grant from a private foundation and moved to at least 1,200 square foot space with a full production kitchen.
In 2010 Sunflower Bakery’s Pastry Art formally accepted its first students providing a curriculum that covered baking basics, employee development training and serve safe safety and sanitation thing. Early on, we realised that field training in a bakery was not a good match for everyone with cognitive disabilities because the job requirements of employers included concentrated focus on tasks, speed, consistency in quality, multi-tasking and physical strength and stamina. If a student couldn’t independently follow many step instructions independently or not able to lift heavy bags of flour and sugar or very large mixing bowls filled with batter, opportunities were more limited. Yet many individuals were having motivated to work with baked goods. As a result, Cafe Sunflower was created in 2014.
Some of the students who struggle with staying focused on task because they were very chatty in the bakery’s kitchen were perfect candidates for welcoming customers and providing customer service in Cafe Sunflower which was located in a busy office building. The Cafe Sunflower developed a new cafe employment training program that also addresses the cognitive learning of each of the individual students while at the same time providing the opportunity to work with the community, serving baked goods, learning a set of transferable skills for future employment. Training at the cafe includes customer service in front of house operations as well as employee development and serves safe safety and sanitation training.
Since 2010, we’ve grown many folds. As of this spring, we will have graduated more than a hundred trained skilled students. 80% of who have found employment within the first six months after graduation. Just a few months ago, we moved the Pastry Arts Training Program from the original 1,200 foot location to another side and that is 5,700 square feet both a fully equipped training kitchen and has a very large full productions kitchen. There are offices, a break room, a classroom, a computer equipped employee development center and the Sunflower Bakeshop retail area. This is huge for us. What a change!
The current budget which started with $2000 from four checks of $500, the bakery budget now is $1.3M. Critical to both of Sunflower’s training programs from inception has been the concept of inclusion. Whilst students have been trained in smaller environments, they’ve always been inclusive. The goal is to provide the students with the transferable skills they need to move on to competitive employment elsewhere using some or all of the skills learned at Sunflower. Each student takes from their training what they can, developing their own skills and being employed in a variety of jobs in the food industry. They pick what works for them best.
Students in the Pastry Arts Training Program participated in 3 phases of a six-month training. During phase 1 usually 9-10 weeks, they focus on basics from identifying ingredients to preparing a wide range pastry. The 2nd phase for training is for 8 weeks and it builds on each student’s individual strength. We expanded so that they can do multiple batches of recipes and they learn to work more efficiently and independently all the while internalising a sense of urgency. That is not easily done. Most folks come to us and don’t have any concept of a sense of urgency but through time and practice that is gradually developed. During phase 2, the students begin the employee development classes. During phase 3, students are hired as paid interns. Now they’re part of the production. This phase which is also 8 weeks is considered a really important transitional phase before employment. Students are responsible for their production assignments from beginning to end, finishing their work on time or staying late to do so using the time clocking, working alongside other chefs independently. That’s a key.
They also continue preparation for employment by developing resumes, having practice interviews and working together with staff on job searches. We help them make matches and understand their strengths. We have many relationships with employers, if a person has a skill set that matches what we know a certain employer requires, we will recommend that. When it comes to the actual job placement, other service providers in the community have that as their job. Within the first six months, 80% of our students are employed. Do they always stay on their first job? No. If people who graduated from fine universities stick with their jobs after six months? Not necessarily. So just like anybody else, they’ve got transferable skills and they can take them elsewhere to another place that they might feel is a better fit. But everybody has to start somewhere so we make sure they get started in the right direction.
The cafe employment training program provides 3 months of training. At the end of their 3 months, if a student is able to work with minimal supervision, he/she is employed at the cafe for six months and they learn a lot about what it’s like to be employed. A first job, they get all of that out of the way with us before they move on to the next job. They again also have time for 3 months is nothing, they have time to get a feel for what areas they prefer, where are their strengths, where are their weaknesses. So after those six months they move on to other employment that they have the transferable skills, the knowledge in school they need.
DEBRA: Can I just ask a question there? Do you think that’s an issue that often these sorts of enterprises startup and all the great intentions in the world but they’re actually not helping in the long-term because they’re not providing those skills and then put you into workplace? It seems to me listening to you talk about your program that what’s key is that people move on, that you’re training them for going forward and as you said they may not stay in the same job forever but they have got skills to get them a job and move forward with their life.
SARA: What’s hard for me is understand why any of those places wouldn’t take their very first person that they train and be thinking “What is this person doing five years from now?” And that’s what we ask every applicant: “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” We have people who can’t even see themselves tomorrow and we’re asking them so we build it up for them, We provide clues and beginning as in “what if ” to help them understand that they may or may not stay in any job. Again we are really realistic about understanding the people do not have necessarily the concept of time but we think it’s important to just have that introduced.
So any business that trains people and hires them to work for them should have in their own employee development training “What’s next for you?” One of the very first things we have them set their own goals, we help them understand how to set a goal right or even have a clue, how you do that or what that is, we talk to them about things that they might even want to and kind of get them what do you see yourself doing and a first job or a training program gives you an opportunity to dine at the smorgasbord but then you only eat those things you really like you don’t go back and Brussels sprouts if you don’t like them. So it’s important for, I think, any business or social enterprise that’s starting that needs to think what next.
DEBRA: What are some of the challenges that the organization’s faced?
SARA: As a non-profit generated income from sales and program fees as well as fund-raising have always challenging. Income from sales of bakery and programs fees represent 50% of our budget of revenue. So each year we have to raise $600,000 from donors, foundations and other sources. We received no ongoing support from the government. We get 10% in private and agency purchased program fees and 40% are our sales and the 40% percent really helps when you go to a foundation that is more often used to dealing with people who provide services where the income if there is no revenue strains there is no other option and so they really like the fact that we understand that they’re not going to give us something on the silver platter. We have to earn it, not to mention, it’s part of making ourselves known in educating the community that we have sales, that we love the people come the first time for the concept and for the values and for our mission.
We really need it to be so great that they come back for the wonderful products and they don’t see us as a charity program. That they see as chefs and our students as capable competent professionals who are giving them something they really want and need and they’re going to come back. A lot of time has put into fundraising. We wish that we could use more of that time to focus energies on and our resources on training. That’s an issue for us, balancing who we are. The training has to be balanced with production and training always comes first but we have to produce enough in sales to meet our 40% mark yet we have to do fundraising to be able to supplement because you don’t find other bakeries or even in culinary schools wherein an individual student or two students are worked with by a professional that’s how students learn- by 1:2:3 ratio with a professional chef. It makes all the difference in the world.
We have found that challenges that fit right along with that finding staff who either have experience are motivated to have a steep learning curve. We’ve learned that staff members need to have not just in the area of expertise but they also need to internalise our mission into their everyday work and a key to that is having heart which is really hard to articulate as an essential job function on the job description. You have to not just get references on people but you really have to get a feel for them certainly for the chefs and the instructors and the administrators that is key.
Employment for training with a wide variety of learning differences is challenging enough itself. We’ve always wanted to be able to turn the widest range of folks for employment so that they can have more opportunities, as a result we started the cafe for folks who were not a match for pastry arts and we’re currently developing a packing shipping track for other individuals who may find success with skills developed in that area. People order everything online these days and we’ve had requests for products to be shipped around the country and around the world and the new program will meet many of needs. Our experience with COVID-19 has really reinforced our understanding of the needs to fill jobs since so many businesses that are now shipping and delivering products beyond what was ever done in the past. We had already started working on it before who knew we would be dealing with the kind of life we’re dealing with now under COVID-19 but it has reinforced our motivation and our feeling that this is a beginning area there’s going to be really so needed
DEBRA: What are some of the plans that you have for the future for Sunflower Bakery?
SARA: Our plan is to make our program easily replicable to many individuals, organisations and institutions that have contacted and visited us over the years. We want to provide consultation, curriculum, webinars and help people set up such an entity. That way many many more opportunities can be made available for individuals with learning differences to get skill training for employment and other locations far and wide and it’s not magic, it’s not a trick. There’s no secret to it. It’s hardwork. We actually have some top tips for people if they’re thinking about doing this a job and I always say the first thing is you have to look at yourself and the people who you’re developing as a team, what is your level of masochism because you have to know it’s not easy you have to be ready to do the hard work. That said, we have learned some things to make it a little easier for you, you should start with the relationship with an established agency, organisation or funder who handle that part, the financial part, start with a partnership.
We started with none of the above and we really advise others to get that in place first because then you can focus on the people part. Start small, start small but start. Don’t start being don’t increase something huge immediately start small and do a group to get started. Recruit an active and committed board, choose carefully and try to find targeted representation. For example you need a lawyer, a banker, find somebody in the food industry, business person who always talks to you “What’s your business plan?” “What’s the bottom line?”. See if you get an accountant, educator or educators, individuals with disabilities and also you want to have professionals working with people and the disability issues in the larger community.
We found that you should not hesitate to reach out to the community for assistance or help. We have found people are so willing to help. We have more people offering volunteered services than we can use and that’s something they be very careful about. Initially for several years we have the only paid employee was the professional chef, the rest of us didn’t get paid and we had volunteers and we found that as we did start paying people, we needed to use less volunteers because they wanted to do a task that we were teaching students to do and we could not do those. We needed to make sure that always meeting the students’ needs were the priority.
So we’ve developed other kinds of volunteer programs, had other opportunities when we knew we needed extra hands with packing and shipping orders for holidays. We call on this people. We called on some of the volunteers who were in full-time jobs to provide practice interviews with our students. We had other people who are in the food industry give pointers to our students and help them with their resume so that they would be able to emphasise their strengths and their value to any employer. Must tip: Don’t hesitate, start. Do research. Contact key players in the communities. If you don’t take the first step, you will never reach your goal.
DEBRA: Sara, thank you so much for your time.
SARA: You’re most welcome.
DEBRA: Key takeaway– Well to quote a well known advertising slogan, “Just do it”. I think it’s really what I’ve taken away from this one.
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