Elmhurst brain injury nonprofit launches bakery training program

ELMHURST – Synapse House, which began about 2.5 years ago and now serves about 70 members who are going through rehabilitation after brain injury or stroke, has added a new program as of June: the Flour to Empower bakery.

Some of the individuals the Synapse House, 561 N. York St., Elmhurst, serves have aphasia, which makes it difficult to speak and follow directions, so office and computer work is challenging for them. But a bakery presents more opportunities, said Deborah Giesler, the Synapse House's executive director.

"It's hands-on. It's not language-based," Giesler said. "Really anybody can participate in the kitchen – even those with more significant impairments – because anybody can stir, they can measure, they can put the label on the packaging, things like that. There's a lot of different tasks in the bakery that can be done by many different skill levels."

Bakery tasks also include "higher-level skills" like interacting with customers, marketing and taking orders. Flour to Empower sells quick breads and muffins through its website, synapsehouse.org, and at the Elmhurst Farmers Market on Wednesdays.

Twelve people currently use the bakery as a day program to continue rehabilitation, Giesler said.

The bakery has a three-step program for employment: work readiness, a two-month culinary internship and then supported employment. Supported employment is the final step before returning to competitive employment, she said.

Mike Johnsen works in the bakery and also does some computer and paperwork tasks. He joined Synapse House after he had a brain injury when he was a truck driver.

"It's a great experience, great people that work here. ... It's well worth it if you're trying to get your life back in order," Johnsen said.

Pastry chef Christine Brown started working on the Synapse House staff in June after teaching elementary school and students with special needs in Chicago for 10 years.

"[The members are] really hard-working people. They've got a really great sense of humor and are always really positive," Brown said. "That's a great thing to come into work and everybody's really happy and smiling away. And especially given their circumstances, it makes you realize that things aren't that serious in life, so just try and enjoy yourself. People that have other situations that are not ideal seem to be making life fun and enjoyable and happy, so I really like the positive, upbeat attitude of the people here."

Brown said the members are shadowing her in the kitchen as they are "getting their sea legs," and they will have more and more responsibilities as time goes on.

"Obviously, the challenges are their limitations, so I have to work around that, but I enjoy that," Brown said. "The challenges are good. It gets too boring if you know everything inside and out, so it makes it fun. It's different every day."

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Know more

To learn about Synapse House, its programs and volunteer opportunities, visit synapsehouse.org or call 877-932-1120.