Baking up sweet treats at Misericordia

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, December 18, 2011

Baking up sweet treats at Misericordia

From left to right, volunteer Bill Wagner, staff member Lenora Brown, resident Jessica F., staff member David Nerychel and resident Stacy G. work in the packaging and shipping room at Misericordia's Hearts & Flour Bakery at 6300 N. Ridge on Dec. 1 The bakery provides challenging job opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Residents Marianne B. and Megan K. make chocolate chip cookies in the bakery. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Chocolate-covered pretzels await packaging in the bakery. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

The sweet scent of sugar pervades the second floor of the main building at Misericordia Heart of Mercy (6300 N. Ridge) in the weeks leading up to Christmas, as developmentally disabled adults, staff members and volunteers work side by side to produce the more than 10,000 packages that will be sent out from the Hearts and Flour Bakery during the holiday season.

But the atmosphere, redolent of sweetness, has to do with a lot more than the sugar, butter and flour that form the base of the brownies, cookies and sweet breads that come from the bakery. The bakery provides employment for about 40 adult residents of Misericordia, which cares for 610 developmentally disabled children and adults.

It’s only been in the last two years that the bakery — started as a more informal “friends and family” operation two decades ago — has turned a small profit, said David Nerychel, a developmental training instructor in the Misericordia Bakery Packaging Department. But the money is only a small part of the benefit the bakery cooks up.

Just as important is providing employment for the residents, who want to earn their own money and feel needed, Nerychel said.

“They like to feel proud of what they accomplished,” he said.

The bakery also offers opportunities for volunteers from the community to come in and work along with the residents, getting to know the developmentally disabled residents as individuals with their own strengths and challenges.

“They are the ambassadors for Misericordia,” he said.

If it weren’t for volunteers, especially during the holiday season, the bakery would not be able to get all of its orders out the door on time, but Nerychel said that there are enough regular devoted volunteers to call on when things get hectic.

“If we send out an SOS, we’ve got that backup from the community,” he said.

Lois Gates, Misericordia’s assistant executive director, said creating opportunities for interaction with community members is an important part of Misericordia’s mission. That’s why it operates its Greenhouse restaurant, the bakery and gift shops, and invites volunteers for all kinds of activities.

“We don’t want to be the place people drive by and wonder what goes on in there,” she said. “Our doors are not locked. We want people to come in. We say, ‘welcome to our world.’”

Then, of course, there’s the good feeling people get when they order from the bakery, which also provides breads and desserts for functions held on Misericordia’s campus and for local farmer’s markets in the summer.

“Everyone likes sweets,” Nerychel said.

Anne Carlson has been working in the packing room for “a long, long time,” she said.

On a Thursday in December, Carlson is putting the red twist ties on cellophane bags, each containing a dozen chocolate chip cookies. She keeps working as she talks to visitors, noting that each tie is to be twisted five times to make sure it’s secure.

She likes this job — sometimes she does other tasks — because she’s sitting next to her housemate, Andrea Cimo, who is filling the bags. Cimo uses a laminated sheet with 12 circles, placing a cookie on each circle, then transfers them to a bag, to make sure each bag has the right number.

Cimo has worked in the bakery for 11 years and puts in three mornings a week.

“I like working with people and doing the different jobs,” she said.

Nerychel acknowledged that Hearts and Flour has some challenges that most commercial bakeries don’t.

“We have to put out a high quality product that has gone through quality control, and we have to do that with a staff that needs a little extra help sometimes,” he said. “They might have trouble with fine motor control, or have difficulty reading.”

One resident employee who is worth his weight in gold is Mike Westphal, who has been working in the bakery since its early days. On a day in early December, he had mixed dinner rolls and put them in to proof and was ready for his next task.

“I do everything,” said Westphal. “I do cakes, I do rolls and bread. I help the other people. When I started at the bakery, I had to ask people what to do.”

While Christmas is the busiest season, Gates said, people should remember that Hearts and Flour is baking year-round, and can make packages for birthdays, other holidays or even care packages for college students.