In 2016 Shirley put her determination into action, and along with a lot of support and encouragement from her husband, South Fork Bakery was born. Within five months of its launch, she had products in 22 stores on the East End. By 2018, they earned official non-profit status, enabling Shirley to expand, providing more sustainable work to other special needs employees who had been hoping and waiting for an opportunity with the bakery. Not long after, the bakery was employing 16 special needs adults and baking over 2000 goodies per week. Before the pandemic, they were supplying over 50 stores, farmer’s markets, and various festivals across Long Island with their delicious cookies, brownies, blondies, pies, and other sweet treats.
South Fork Bakery’s employees say the job provides them with a great sense of worth, pride, fun, and good friends. Despite their diverse range of diagnoses, including Autism, Down’s syndrome, ADHD, OCD, receptive, expressive, and social language disorders, employees are immersed in all aspects of the business, including weighing, mixing, measuring, baking, bagging, labeling, boxing, and selling. Retired job coaches and special education teachers assist with problem-solving employee obstacles focusing on ability, not disability. Multiple tasks offer a variety of ways to exercise fine motor and cognitive skills. Employees may need more time, visual supports, repeated demonstrations, or anything else to learn and complete their tasks successfully. They are also able to enhance their social skills through cooperation and communication. Shirley says that many of her employees would be isolated at home without work if it were not for their opportunity at the bakery. Working there offers them a predictable routine, challenges, fulfillment, and a sense of camaraderie.