Friendship Circle helps those with special needs
The West Bloomfield non-profit recently purchased the Dakota Bread Company and has started a program to teach job skills to those with special needs
David Guralnick, The Detroit News
At West Bloomfield’s Dakota Bread Company, the challah is braided, the cookies are decorated and the staff is learning skills that go beyond kneading dough.
The award-winning gourmet Jewish bakery has been around for decades, but since it was purchased by nonprofit group Friendship Circle in October, it’s become a place for young adults with special needs to find acceptance, build confidence and create some delicious, kosher products. The icing on the cookie: Sales have nearly doubled since last fall.
Dakota — which is best known for its braided challah bread that is sold in markets throughout Metro Detroit — has a handful of trainees with special needs who work a few hours a week preparing, baking and decorating. It’s calming, repetitive work that can be done in a slow-paced environment, says Friendship Circle Director Bassie Shemtov.
“The mission is to really focus on the soul of the person, and to give each person the opportunity to express themselves and to be productive and to shine as an individual,” she said. “So when we give them the opportunity to train them in a safe, positive, non-judgmental environment, we are allowing themselves to kind of build on their strengths.”
“(It’s) a place to make special needs people feel like they’re normal people and to have them feel acceptance and that they did a good job,” says trainee Shira Schweitzer, who spends two days a week at Dakota Bakery. She works there along with her brother Daniel and says her favorite thing to do at Dakota is decorate the sugar cookies.
“I make challahs, different kinds, braided, squares and rolls,” she said. “Sometimes we rotate certain activities. The other day we were learning how to sweep the floor, sometimes we wash, sanitize and rinse dishes and we make cookies, too, and we make dog biscuits.”
“It’s in a very calming environment, there’s not a lot of pressure, which is great,” said Sheryl Schweitzer, Shira and Daniel’s mother, who also volunteers at the bakery. Schweitzer and her husband recently relocated their family to Metro Detroit from Long Island, New York, after he took a position as the dean of Wayne State Medical School.
Schweitzer said before the move, Shira was concerned about leaving her friends in Long Island, where they were also part of the local Friendship Circle’s network. Sheryl said she’s found the Metro Detroit Friendship Circle programs to be even better than the ones in their previous community.
“When I heard we were moving at first I was not terribly thrilled, but once I started researching what’s out here it became clear that this would be a good place for us to retire and for the kids to have more options than in Long Island, actually,” she said, adding that the move to Metro Detroit was “a blessing in disguise.”
“I told Bassie Shemtov, I think this is why God brought us out here,” said Sheryl, adding that working at the Dakota Bakery has given both her adult children structure and that, for Shira specifically, it’s made her feel “very confident.”
“She sees the end product and she get a lot of praise and she comes home wanting to make what she’s made in the bakery. That’s a really nice thing for me as a parent to see her becoming more and more independent and wanting to make these things on her own.”
Shemtov, who Shira calls “amazing,” and her husband, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, founded Friendship Circle in 1994. Since then, the nonprofit, which supports individuals with special needs and their families, has grown to 90 chapters across the country.
In addition to the Dakota Bakery, Metro Detroit’s Friendship Circle also oversees West Bloomfield’s Soul Studio arts program and gallery and the Soul Cafe, a restaurant where adults with special needs can also find fulfilling employment. The cafe is more of a fast-paced work environment, where Dakota Bread is a place for those who prefer more consistent, repetitive tasks.
The feeling of acceptance is two-way street, too. The Dakota Bakery and Soul Cafe aren’t just a space for adults with special needs to feel accepted and gain confidence, says Shemtov, it’s also a chance for anyone in the local community to “be in the environment of true, unconditional love.”
“When you are with somebody with special needs, let your guard down,” says Shemtov. “Don’t worry, they are not judging you — they love you, if you love them. If you’re a good person, they love you. Period.”
As for the Dakota’s uptick in sales since folding into the Friendship Circle’s network, Shemtov cites a variety of factors. One, they took the longstanding, beloved challah recipe and, while they didn’t alter the ingredients at all, they made changes to how it is prepared so that those who eat strictly kosher can enjoy it. The new owners also expanded the pastry department at Dakota Bread and added more wholesale accounts.
The pastry department added flourless chocolate cake and babka to the already-loved muffins and cookies. In addition to being sold from the West Bloomfield bakery, Dakota Bread’s challah can be found at Holiday Market, Kroger, Plum Market and others. Shemtov and her team are working on expanding to area Costco and Meijer stores, too.
In the near future Shemtov says they hope to expand the space inside the facility to offer classes to the community.
“We want this Dakota brand to feel like your home, like this is a community space that everybody should be excited to sit inside of it, to be inside of it,” said Shemtov. “We are planning, very soon, God-willing with our renovation … to have challah baking classes, for everyone woman or man, child. We want our individuals with special needs to be a part of that – how to braid, how to bake, put it in the pan and take it home. We want to continue that inclusive piece to not only for the good of the individual with special needs, but honestly for the good of the everyday person.”
Dakota Bread, 6879 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield Township, is open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and 7 a.m-4 p.m. Fri. Call (248) 788-4800 or visit friendshipcircle.org/dakotabread.
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