Baking for the better
The Altamont Bakery gives Tulsans with mental illnesses a place to work and connect with the community.
Chief volunteer Nancy Cohen, left, and synagogue administrator Betty Lehman, right, both of Congregation B’nai Emunah, assist Altamont Bakery employee Mary Nixon in the kitchen.
Every Tuesday evening, Mary Nixon walks into the kitchen at the Congregation B’nai Emunah synagogue and puts on her apron to begin her shift.
Then, it is not unusual to see her mix together nearly 150 eggs with bag after bag of chocolate chips, all for the sake of creating the perfect cookie. Well, actually about 1,000 perfect cookies.
Some notice the process creates a delicious aroma that overflows into the synagogue’s hallways.
But for Nixon, it is not the making and baking that brings a smile to her face. It is the fact that after a period of homelessness, Nixon now has a steady job at the synagogue’s Altamont Bakery, putting her one step closer to overpowering her mental illness and enjoying a fulfilling life.
“It’s like a step out of illness,” Nixon says. “I really get to connect with people here.”
The Altamont Bakery employs seven individuals with mental illnesses, some current residents of the nearby Altamont Apartments and all formerly homeless.
Created through Congregation B’nai Emunah, the Housing Faith Alliance program and the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, the Altamont Bakery has kept the group of MHAT clients busy mixing, scooping and baking in the commercial kitchen for more than a year.
These employees now bake long into the night on Tuesdays while dozens of synagogue volunteers package and sell the cookies throughout the week. All proceeds are pumped back into ingredients or wages for the Altamont Bakery employees.
Rabbi Marc Fitzerman says the program’s organizers began looking for ways to get those living in nearby MHAT housing plugged into the synagogue and the surrounding community.
Providing employment and creating mouth-watering cookies seemed a winning combination. Soon, a congregation member had donated an oven for the business and about 30 volunteers were begging to lend their hands.
“Once you begin with a radical commitment to people who have nothing, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to share, how to lift people onto their own feet,” Fitzerman says.
The employees are paid $10 an hour to do a job many of them have grown to love with people they have grown to trust, he says.
Bob Althoff has worked with several faith organizations throughout the city in hopes of creating this kind of relationship.
As executive director of the Abba’s Family organization, the nonprofit over the Housing Faith Alliance program, Althoff builds bridges to connect the mentally ill to faith organizations.
The Altamont Bakery should serve as a model of how remarkable this connection can be, he says.
“Some of them have never felt so empowered in their lives,” Althoff says. “We have treatment and counseling and therapy, but this is real life.”
MHAT’s executive director, Mike Brose, agrees.
“On that road to recovery, one of the things we recognize is how powerful it is for people to have a job,” he says. “For a lot of these people, that dream was lost. This is re-instilling that dream.”
For Nixon, that dream comes true every Tuesday in the kosher commercial kitchen. The cookies she helps bake are then sold for $2 each at a growing list of area businesses, including coffee shops, boutiques, hospitals and even Circle Cinema.
The Altamont Bakery employees’ growing connection to their surrounding community has had a profound impact on their battle against mental illness, Althoff says.
“Everybody, mentally ill or not, wants to belong,” he says. “So many in the housing program get stuck because they don’t have ties to the community. Here, they’re being fully included in the community, and that’s the way to getting healthy.”