Mentally ill Tulsans find recipe for success in cookie project
BY BILL SHERMAN World Religion Writer
Friday, February 22, 2013
2/22/13 at 8:09 AM
The 700 to 1,000 cookies that come out of the Altamont Bakery at B'nai Emunah synagogue each week have a secret ingredient - love.
It's difficult to measure, but its flavor is unmistakable.
The bakery is a collaboration between the synagogue and the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, supported by the Housing Faith Alliance.
It takes its name from the Altamont Apartments, a housing facility operated by the Mental Health Association.
Each Tuesday afternoon, about half a dozen volunteers from the synagogue and about the same number of residents of Mental Health Association housing get together to bake cookies. Not just cookies, but big, thick, rich, chocolaty cookies. And they sell them at hospitals, coffee shops and other sites around town.
On Wednesday, six dozen of their cookies were shipped to the National Governors Conference in Washington, D.C., at the request of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin's office.
The year-old project gives mentally ill and formerly homeless people the opportunity to engage in useful work, make some money and build relationships with other people.
"The power of it is in the relationships; it's not in the baking," said Bob Althoff of the Housing Faith Alliance, which builds connections between faith communities and mentally ill people.
"We're all about helping people get a life, and treatment alone can't do that. You have to have social connectivity," said Althoff, who helped develop the cookie project.
"I like it a lot," Mary Nixon said Tuesday afternoon as she cut up butter and blended it into dry ingredients in a mixer. "I like the interaction with the volunteers at the synagogue.
"I'm on disability, but this job right here gives me some feeling of usefulness instead of just sitting at home collecting checks," Nixon said.
"I love it. I really love it," added Kimberly Ferry as she mixed dry ingredients in a bowl.
"It helped me get into an apartment, and it helped me to buy clothes for my son. That was a big deal.
"I was happy when I was able to buy him a pair of shoes," Ferry said. "People take that stuff for granted. They were Walmart tennis shoes, but they were shoes.
"I've gotten better with the Mental Health Association and with God as my friends - mainly God. Now I'm able to be self-sufficient."
Nancy Cohen, who helped start the bakery and is now the chief cook, said she has been amazed to see how the project has helped people.
"I've seen such a dramatic change in this group," Cohen said. "Kimberly, when she first started, would never, ever have eye contact. Now she's so outgoing; she's so proud. All of them have grown so much. It's amazing to me.
"I think they look forward to coming every Tuesday. All of them have become family to us."
Gail Newman has been volunteering at the bakery for about year. Her forte, she joked, is scooping dough onto baking sheets.
"I come out because it's so wonderful to see these residents learn a skill and work together and do this project, and we have a good time while we're doing it," she said.
On Wednesday morning, another shift of volunteers packaged the cookies for sale, and that afternoon, a third shift of volunteers delivered them around town.
Rabbi Marc Fitzerman, who originated the idea, said the bakery is an outgrowth of the synagogue's commitment to people who have nothing.
"How can we be a truly great city unless we are pounding away at the stubborn problems of urban life: poverty, homelessness, racism, violence, inequality and health care?" he asked.
"We were all unsure of ourselves at the start," he said. "The Mental Health Association bakers had never been in a synagogue before, and the volunteers had no real sense of what it would be like to work with citizens who are mentally ill.
"We quickly learned to put all of that uneasiness aside. We have real conversations with one another about love, family, personal struggle and the chaos of our lives."
Betty Lehman, the synagogue's administrator and another founder of the bakery, said it operates like a family business.
She oversees purchasing, payroll, distribution and other aspects of the project, which demanded a steep learning curve about packaging, nutrition statements and Health Department requirements.
The synagogue bought metal tables, cooling racks, mixers and other equipment for the bakery. A donor provided a commercial oven that can bake more than 100 cookies at a time.
Lehman said the Mental Health Association residents are not the only beneficiaries.
"We're also benefitting," she said. "This is changing lives."
In person: Congregation B'nai Emunah: 1719 S. Owasso Ave.
Find more locations: tulsaworld.com/altamontbakery
Phone orders: Betty Lehman, 918-583-7121
Original Print Headline: Recipe for success
Bill Sherman 918-581-8398
Jessica Sanford, a worker in the Altamont Bakery at B'nai Emunah synagogue, loads cookie dough onto a rack. The cookies are packaged and sold at various locations in Tulsa. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World
Scoops of cookie dough await a turn in the oven at the Altamont Bakery at B'nai Emunah synagogue. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World
Nancy Cohen, the chief cook at the Altamont Bakery, scoops cookie dough onto baking sheets. Cohen said she has been amazed to see how the project has helped people. CORY YOUNG/ Tulsa World