{image is a photo of Steven Kurtz at work in the kitchen. He is, of course, smiling.}

Oh, hi. You’re still here! That’s awesome. I really appreciate you sticking around, especially because I have a pretty cool story to share. Well, a couple of them actually, but let’s take it one at a time, shall we?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me to check out a non-profit bakery called Whippourwill. Once she did, I knew I had to share their story with you.

(Ed note: Just a reminder that I don’t do sponsored posts or the like, so if I share something like this with you, I have no stake in it, no relationship to it, nor do I profit from it in any way whatsoever. Moving on.)

Two years ago, I wrote about the founding of a summer camp for autistic kids called Well-Served Tennis Academy. In that post, I wrote the following:

I read once that long before her name was a brand, Donna Karan couldn’t find a pair of slacks that she needed. She’d looked everywhere, and certainly there were plenty of pants to be found, but none of them satisfied her. So she designed them. And her eponymous empire was born.

I have no idea whether or not that story is true, but I’ve decided that it doesn’t really matter. I love it, and whether or not its details are accurate, I find it to be a lovely modern fable.

If you need it, and you can’t find it, create it.

There’s always something that we need. And here in autism land, it’s usually a hell of a lot more than a pair of stylish trousers (though don’t get me wrong, a good straight-leg slack with the right heel can add a solid optical six inches and who am I to scoff at that?).

Some of us lament what we don’t have. Others use what they have, scrounge for what they don’t, and go out and design the damned pants themselves.

Just like Shannon at Well-Served, Steven Kurtz and his family are designing some pretty damned cool pants (figuratively speaking.)

Steven is autistic. Now thirteen, his passion for baking began to emerge when he was just six and he made it clear that he wanted to join his mom in the kitchen. By the ripe old age of seven, Steven had declared that he would be a chef when he grew up, a declaration that he repeated to me via email just a couple of days ago.

After repeating kindergarten without any real progress to show for his time and effort there, his parents put Steven into a private school, hoping the setting might serve him better. When it quickly became clear that the new school could not meet his needs, they decided to forge their own path.

“I poured over cookbooks for inspiration and I talked to Steven’s therapists for ideas,” Steven’s mom, Susan says. “With the help and support of his incredible speech therapist, I quickly came to realize that I could teach Steven through cooking. Math, science, reading, writing, geography, culture, fine motor, gross motor, life and social skills could all be found in the pages of my cookbooks. There was no road map or recipe for this endeavor, but we could create it.”

“We assembled a team,” she says, “each member committed to working with Steven through his passion for food. Everyone brought a unique perspective and different ideas, but we were united by one common denominator. Everyone that worked with Steven assumed his competence.”

The results were not surprising to those who believed in him.

“Within a week,” Susan says, “the child who supposedly could not write his name picked up a pencil and made a shopping list of ingredients to bake chocolate chip cookies. While we had been told that Steven could not follow one step directions at school, he would stand next to me and follow a recipe.”

It was not long before he was learning fractions, addition, subtraction and multiplication in the kitchen. They worked on motor skills as they kneaded and rolled dough and practiced visual processing twisting the dough into pretzels.

“They practiced handwriting and spelling by making shopping lists,” Susan says. “As he got older, we designed lesson plans to teach him how a grocery store is organized and how we can ask a clerk for help locating an item. We worked on money skills. With the help of a patient bank teller, Steven opened his own bank account and makes a weekly deposit independently. He learns geography and culture through food and we have discovered many new things that Steven likes to make from faraway places.”

Susan speculates that part of the joy that Steven finds in baking can be found in the process itself. “It’s scientific, methodical, predictable and precise,” she says. “There’s comfort in that.”

According to Steven, there’s far more than comfort, there’s joy. When I asked him how he feels when he’s baking, he told me that it makes him very happy. A kid after my own heart, he also shared that his favorite part is eating the treats he produces, especially the cookies and chocolate chip muffins. Clearly, he has his priorities straight.

As Steven’s skills and preferences evolved, so, Susan says, did his lesson plans. Last school year, they decided to take all that he had learned to host a bake sale for a favorite charity. He would email friends and ask them for help, make flyers and posters, work on his money skills, practice interacting with customers, shop for ingredients, and of course, bake.

Using the neighborhood lemonade stand as a model, they planned to set up a table to sell Steven’s treats. And then the manager of the local farmer’s market invited them to set up shop in the middle of town on market day.

The bake sale, though challenging, was a raging success. They raised $3,600 for the purchase of therapy equipment for Algoas-AMA, a non-profit organization that serves children with various developmental disabilities in one of the poorest regions of Brazil. Moreover, it launched an exciting new venture.

“It took a while for the adrenaline rush of the event to wear off,” Susan says. “Everyone asked us, ‘What’s next?’ Steven asked when he could have another Bake Sale.

Susan reflected on the day seven years ago when Steven asked to work with her in the kitchen. “I recalled the mixture of desperation, courage and hope I felt when I decided to home school him,” she says. “I could not believe how far we had all come. It inspired our family to think more strategically about the future, not only for Steven, but for other teens and adults with learning differences. If a passion and skill for baking could do this much for our child, what could it do for others?”

Just weeks after the Bake Sale, Whippourwill (we whip, we pour, we spread goodwill) was born. Their mission: to provide meaningful and inclusive employment for people of all abilities. And, at the same time, to bake, sell, and deliver fabulous baked goods.

This past fall, Steven returned to the Farmers Market to sell his treats. He greets customers with a cheerful, “Welcome to Whippourwill,” and heartily thanks them for their purchases. They have begun to make local deliveries, which Steven told me he loves to do.

Seven years ago, a kid whose school would have had him and his parents believe couldn’t hold a pencil or follow one-step directions decided that he wanted to be a chef. Seven years later, he’s well on his way.

So often, I hear people say, “If only someone would build,” or “if only __ existed.” Steven, like all of us, needed a way to learn, an opportunity to follow his passion, and ultimately, a place to work. Rather than hope that someone would build them or wish that they existed, he and his parents designed the pants.

I know that not everyone has the resources or the connections to create something like this, but don’t write yourself off too quickly. You might just be surprised at what can you do.

Learn more

Follow Whippourwill on Facebook

Ed note: My friend, Susan (Senator, not Kurtz), has begun to compile a list of businesses that, like Whippourwill, were founded and run by autistic people and their families. Check it out HERE and please feel free to send her links to any she might not have yet.

8 thoughts on “whippourwill

  1. I love Lisa’s comment. This is the most uplifting story. Thank you for starting my day with this. Steven is amazing!!

    Love you,

  2. Fantastic… my great nephew loves and plays golf! He even signed up for his high school team. Yay!

    Life can be good!

  3. And this is exactly why we homeschool. It is also known as interest led learning. We structure the learning around all things animals and sea creatures.

  4. dear jess, I’m now seeking out whippoorwill and hope steven will share his neurodiversity working recipe with the world on LOUD MUTE RADIO. thanks for that and the new word. in an eponymous business b

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