How Philly bakers are resisting hate, one batch of cookies at a time

Molly Lester offers fresh cookies to Maryam Sayedzada (right) and her 2-year-old son, Zamir, at the start of an ESL class at the Nationalities Service Center.

On the last Thursday night of every month at the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Family Residence in North Philadelphia, there’s a birthday party for everyone — all 41 families, including about 60 children, grappling with the steep climb out of homelessness.

But, given the shelter’s scant funding streams, there wasn’t always enough money left over at the end of the month for a cake. Sometimes, they had to put candles in leftover muffins instead.

That changed, though, thanks to Molly Lester, 31, a Center City resident who likes to bake her feelings. A couple of years ago, she felt like reaching out to the shelter’s residents, to send them a message of sweetness and abundance, in the form of sheet cakes delivered unfailingly each month.

In January, dismayed by President Trump’s travel ban and policies targeting immigrants and by the tensions and signs of hate she saw in the news, there was even more Lester wanted to say.

“I wanted to send a message of welcome and inclusion to people that were increasingly being excluded,” she said.

So, she put out a call on Facebook for others who might want to join her. “It was something I thought would make for a natural network of bakers,” she said. “A bunch of people came forward and said they’d like to bake for a cause.”

The result is the InKind Baking Project, which in the last eight months has grown an email list of about 100 volunteers. Some enjoy the chance to try out new recipes without the temptation to eat the results themselves. Others find baking therapeutic. All are looking for something — anything — to counter what they see as one of the most fractious moments in their lifetime. So far, they have baked for more than 3,250 people all served by nonprofits around the city.

The idea is simple: A nonprofit submits a request, Lester sends it out to her list, and a baker signs up to fulfill it. So far, she’s made snickerdoodle and chocolate-chip cookies and her grandmother’s molasses cupcakes. For early-morning events, bakers bring muffins or banana bread. Lester also sends out a postcard template so bakers can include a message to the recipients. These days, she’s trying to figure out how to keep up with demand, and to find ways to offset costs for any volunteers who may be eager to bake but who can’t afford ingredients.

Lester knows it’s a small gesture in the face of so much anxiety. “If you’re in a serious topic, like a know-your-rights information session, I’m not saying baked goods solve that scenario,” said Lester, who works in historic preservation and planning. “But at least here’s something sweet on the side.”

Molly Lester delivers cookies to the National Services Center before an ESL class.

On a recent morning, Lester arrived with a delivery for the Nationalities Service Center, which works with refugees, asylum seekers, and human-trafficking victims: a message of welcoming in the form of a tray of cookies in psychedelic hues made by middle school students at First Presbyterian Church in Pottstown.

A large stack of plastic food storage containers, left over from her previous visits, was waiting on the reception desk.

Before picking it up, Lester dropped off the cookies at an English class filled with students from Eritrea, Bhutan, Syria, Gambia, Syria, Iraq, and Sudan.

It was a welcome interruption for Maryam Sayedzada, a 21-year-old Afghani immigrant who has been studying English for three months. She said she was looking forward to a cookie, even if the note attached to the delivery was a little beyond her reading comprehension.

Taylor Lam, the instructor, said most students have even less English. But food is a common language. “They really like when the food comes, even when they don’t know where it’s coming from. They really appreciate it being here.”

Even though the center’s clients all have the legal right to live and work here, the political tensions of the moment feel deeply personal for them. Their numbers are fewer than in recent memory: Last July, the center resettled 40 people in Philadelphia, compared to just four this July.

“I’ve seen more anxiety related to green-card applications and family members arriving,” said Ellen Ramage, the center’s continuum of care coordinator. “But Philadelphia overall has still been a very welcoming community for our clients. That comes back to having people bring in cakes and cookies. It is actually a huge boost in morale.”

Lester and her crew of volunteers have also baked for homeless shelters, a drop-in center for sex workers and other organizations serving immigrants. After stopping at the English class, she had to deliver a batch of cupcakes she’d made the night before for patients and staff at Girard Medical Center.

And she and others still keep up the monthly deliveries to the Red Shield shelter, one of three in the city that will accept families of any composition, from intergenerational families to same-sex couples with kids. The largest population in the shelter is single mothers with children younger than 2. The shelter hasn’t had a funding increase from the city in the last nine years.

Thanks to the InKind Baking Project, there will be desserts at the shelter’s annual back-to-school party.

“Some of the older kids, it is hard to be here, but we try to make it as normal and as homey as possible, so having these events, it keeps their spirits up,” said Kelly Devlin, director of the shelter.

Kyra Atterbury, 39, of Germantown, was responsible for bringing this month’s birthday cakes. To her, baking is therapy.

“But I try not to eat everything I bake,” she said.

When she heard about the project, it made sense to her.

“Baking makes people happy,” she said. “For some of the people we’re baking for, who might be in a tough situation or might be learning about this country for the first time, this is not the biggest thing in the world. But maybe, for a couple seconds, it puts a smile on someone’s face.”

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