Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More than daily bread

An article published in the October 10th edition of The Chronicle Herald:
At Stone Hearth Bakery, people restart their lives, build life skills

By Holly Fraughton

THE SMELL OF FRESHLY BAKED BREAD, bagels and sweet loaves wafts through the air in the lower level of The Village at Bayers Road shopping centre. If you follow your nose, the aroma will lead straight to the Stone Hearth Bakery.

Many Nova Scotians will recognize the brand. The kosher bakery has been producing freshly baked bread since 1982, but what many don’t know is the story behind the bakery.

Stone Hearth is just one of the programs operated under the MetroWorks umbrella, a non-profit organization that has been offering training since the late 1970s to people who face barriers to employment.

Chuck Weatherbee [pictured], 40, of Dartmouth, has worked at the bakery for over five years. Today, he is responsible for packaging and distributing the finished product. Bakery manager Shawn Patterson points out that Chuck is also their quality assurance monitor, making sure that every loaf is perfect.

"He’s the guy that makes sure the customers get the good stuff," Patterson said.

Weatherbee was diagnosed with schizophrenia 19 years ago when he was just 21. Before he found Stone Hearth, he had only done seasonal work, picking fruit.

Weatherbee had just finished a six-week, day-hospital stay when one of the nurses suggested he look into Stone Hearth’s program.

For Weatherbee, working at the bakery has created structure in his life and offers a sense of fulfilment. "Now, I’m to the point that I’m training other people, so that makes me feel good. It makes me a little sad when they leave, but it makes me feel good that I can actually pass skills on and help somebody out!"

The bakery used to be in north-end Halifax, but moved in September 2010 after MetroWorks centralized its operations to The Village at Bayers Road. The new state-of-the-art facility is perfect for training bakers and has been very good for business, allowing them to expand their product line and develop new working relationships.

"Because of our new facility and equipment, community colleges noticed us; they’ve put people here on placements, and then we’ve been able to hire those people, and then they’ve got the experience to expand our product list. It’s just a complete chain reaction," Patterson said.

That chain reaction has also been felt by participants.

"They’re very proud of their products and they’ll go to the grocery stores on their time off and straighten out the shelves," Patterson said with a smile.

Soon, more delicious aromas will also be emanating from the kitchen of the Stone Hearth Bistro.

MetroWorks is getting ready to expand their food service training program, opening a 7,000-square-foot restaurant in The Village at Bayers Road in late October. The bistro will offer participants hands-on training in a restaurant setting, preparing them for future employment in kitchens throughout the province.

The idea for the restaurant evolved out of research into Halifax’s current labour market, and will build on MetroWorks’ existing food service program, which is currently largely classroom-based. They plan to start with a class of 12 participants, and by the first quarter of 2012, have between 36 and 40 participants working in the bistro.

The bistro will also feature a small market section, where Stone Hearth can showcase bakery products and, Patterson hopes, the story behind Stone Hearth.

"I go to farmers markets on the weekends . . . and sell our bread and I’m always educating people that, ‘You can buy our product and support a program that’s helping people either restart their lives or help them better themselves,’ " Patterson said.

Stone Hearth currently sells to large retail commercial customers, local restaurants, and distributes outside of Halifax through Canada Bread. Since moving to the new facility, they’ve been able to take on more clients, and Patterson estimates the business from restaurants has doubled, as well.

"It’s a not-for-profit, but it is a business. . . . All the money that we make goes back into programming, so the more money we make, the more money we can invest in other programs," Patterson explained.

The main objective at the bakery and new restaurant is to build skills. Participants work alongside paid professionals, and many also take courses on job searching and resume writing.

Not all will go on to pursue careers as bakers or as kitchen staff. Some will realize that they want to go back to school, instead.

"Some people may never work, but to maybe learn to get along with people is a huge success for them. So each person’s success is measured differently," Patterson said.

But for those who do go on to get jobs, the economic spinoff can be significant.

"When we start to measure some of our impacts on the local economy and local tax burden, if you can take someone off of assistance that is costing real dollars, tens of thousands of dollars a year, and move that person from being entirely dependent on the public purse to a taxpayer, it’s huge!" pointed out Mark Lever, MetroWorks’ president and CEO.

MetroWorks does look to various levels of government for capital funding, but the idea is to work towards creating self-sustaining programs, like the bakery.

And Lever is quick to point out that they aren’t looking for charity: "We recognize that the product has to be, first and foremost, second to none and the best it can be."

Photograph by Adrien Veczan / The Chronicle Herald

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