When the bakery Bake With Dignity (BWD) recruits staff, the managers are not too concerned about the individuals’ prowess in icing cakes or rolling out pastry.

Former journalist Pang Hin Yue who runs the bakery started out by dabbling around the kitchen. But when orders started coming in, Pang enrolled in an advanced baking course at a culinary school in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, to further hone her skills.

Pang was equipping herself for a mission that’s quite different from most bakers’. She is intent not only on churning out delicious goodies from her kitchen, but also to train youths with special needs who will need more time and effort to learn their way around the oven.

BWD is a social enterprise project by NGO Dignity and Services (D&S) to impart living skills to the disabled and help them hold jobs.

The project started back in 2007 when a group of caregivers, including Pang, who has an autistic son, decided to teach their special needs children how to cook and bake.

They started out small, with bake sessions using an 18-inch oven in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. Word slowly got around and orders started to streaming in.

Bake With Dignity bakery

Although (from left) Jagateswari Gunaseelan, Mimi Choong and Loong Ji Xian have to work harder at learning to bake, they have persevered.

In 2011, D&S decided to call the baking project Bake With Dignity.

“People with learning disabilities should have an equal opportunity to reach their potential. It is important to tap into their interests and help them excel in their career and development,” said D&S executive director Helen Teh.

Last October, D&S proudly opened BWD. Nestled in between offices and colleges at Leisure Commerce Square in Bandar Sunway, Selangor, the bakery is run by individuals with autism and Down Syndrome.

Patience and persistence in training

The café has 12 employees, between the ages of 17 and 56. These special needs individuals – mostly working part-time – are hired through word of mouth.

“While the bakery is still a work-in-progress, taking into account the bakers’ different level of skills and understanding, we persevere to train and guide them in areas where they can develop. Through patience and persistence, these individuals can shine in their jobs,” Teh, 45, said.

The bakers – who earn RM6 an hour – work two or three days a week.

Pang runs the bakery with Marina Lim, also a mother of an autistic child, and Teh. They assess each special needs individual’s skills and identify suitable tasks for them.

Those with motor skills and coordination issues need supervision and will usually start with simpler tasks like rolling the dough and mixing the filling for pastries.

High functioning individuals who are more independent will also supervise the others on tasks like weighing ingredients, cooking items on the stove, piping and icing.

“A task like cracking eggs may seem pretty simple but those with learning disabilities might find it hard as it involves their motor skills,” explained Pang whose son is one of the bakers at BWD.

Bake With Dignity bakery

Interacting with customers at the bakery gives the bakers the opportunity to improve their communication skills.

While it is challenging to train special needs individuals, 52-year-old Pang will not give up.

“It’s definitely not easy to train them. We’ve undergone good and bad challenges but the whole project is a work in progress. We’re learning new recipes and trying out new teaching techniques. This includes using visual aids to make it easier for the bakers to follow instructions.”

Dignity from giving their best

Besides kitchen work, bakers also have other duties such as interacting with customers and handling the cash register.

“Even high functioning autistic people have communication issues. They may appear normal but have difficulties talking to people. At the bakery, they have the opportunity to improve their speech. These are basic skills which will come in handy as they work towards independent living,” said Teh, a former hospital operations manager who left the corporate world to work for a social enterprise.

The aroma of freshly baked pastries wafts through the bakery, which serves pastries, cakes and cookies.

Bake With Dignity bakery

Loong Ji Xian looks forward to going to work at the bakery.

Although BWD is not staffed by the most skilled workers, Pang is determined to not compromise on the quality of their products.

“It is important that customers get their money’s worth because there is dignity in producing baked goods with the finest ingredients,” said Pang who has actively helped her 20-year-old autistic son learn to be independent.

Cakes and cookies contain butter and the butter cookies use imported organic vanilla beans.

“Our pineapple jam is homemade. We make the topping for our chocolate moist cake with whipping cream and Belgian chocolate. We make our own salted caramel using sugar, whipping cream, butter and kosher salt,” added Pang.

Bakery has good products

The display counter neatly displays sweet treats such as muffins, pineapple tarts and salted caramel brownies alongside savoury offerings like chicken pies, chicken puffs and shepherd’s pies.

The cakes and cupcakes are piped with butter cream icing with pink jelly specks.

“The buttercream is made using freshly blended strawberries. It gives an intense flavour and vibrant colour, minus any preservatives or colouring,” said Teh, proud of their attention to detail and quality.

The chicken buns are delicious, with finely-sliced turmeric leaves and hints of spices. The salted caramel brownie is rich and tastes heavenly. “Our chicken buns, salted caramel brownies and muffins are our best-selling items,” said Teh.

There is no mistaking the commitment and pride of the special needs individuals who work hard in the bakery, not only to produce the baked goods but also to strive to better themselves.

Bakers learn a lot

Homemaker Kelly Voon, 49, said her autistic son Loong Ji Xian’s confidence has grown by leaps and bounds since he started working at the bakery six months ago.

“Ji Xian is committed to his work and looks forward to the six-hour sessions. He enjoys learning new skills, including mixing and weighing ingredients. He also gets a chance to mingle with his colleagues and interact with customers.”

Voon is grateful her only son has a chance to earn a salary.

“As parents of special needs children, we worry about their future once we are no longer around. Through the training received at the bakery, my son is learning a skill set which could come in handy in future. My aim is for him to be independent and take care of himself when my husband and I are older.”

Teh hopes the public and more corporations will step forward and support their efforts. They need more orders and also financial support to develop their business and training.

BWD is at Unit A2-126, Leisure Commerce Square, Jalan PJS 8/9, Bandar Sunway, Selangor, and opens from 10am to 4pm on weekdays. They also take online orders and do deliveries. For more information, visit www.dignityandservices.org.

To support Dignity & Services, take part in their fun run Everyone Can Run 2017 on May 7 at Central Park, Bandar Utama in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. For more details, go to dignityandservices.org or call 017-471 7273/010-288 1202.