Bakery program offers adults with disabilities a ‘taste’ of success

Bakery program offers adults with disabilities a ‘taste’ of success
Bakery program offers adults with disabilities a ‘taste’ of success
Pictured showing off their tasty creations are bakery students (l-r) Luis Fuentes, Guillermo Acosta, Paula Bush, Erin Schmidt, instructor Pedro A . Diaz, Lexus Baker, Anthony Cazanove, George Pink and David Barrero. Not pictured is student Eric Negron.

As a third generation baker, Pedro Diaz has seen, baked and tasted nearly every pastry imaginable. After all, his father and grandfather were bakers in Cuba and 10 members of his family are bakers.

But Diaz, 47, a native of Havana, Cuba, who left the island in 1980, never imagined the “taste” of success he is enjoying now as he teaches the art of baking to adults with disabilities in the Miami Coral Park Adult/JRE Lee Bakery Arts Program in South Miami.

The Miami-Dade County Public School program, which currently has 13 students (the program can accommodate a maximum of 15 students at one time), is unique in Florida and is believed to be one of only a handful of similar programs nationwide. It began in January of this year and the students have drawn rave reviews for their tasty creations.

“We are teaching these students the basics of baking and pastry arts, from preparation to measuring to completion — everything they need to know to be able to work in a bakery,” said Diaz, a former bakery employee and manager for 19 years for Publix.

“When they leave here, they’ll have the skills they need to succeed, whether working in a bakery for a large grocery chain or in a small, neighborhood bakery. They all already have the passion — and love for baking — and that is the basic ingredient for success.”

And Diaz knows about the passion for baking. After working with his father and grandfather in Cuba, Diaz came to Miami where he worked part time — as a 16-yearold helping his family make ends meet — in a bakery for Extra Supermarkets. He later received his GED from Hialeah- Miami Lakes High School and now, years later, finds himself running a program helping others with life skills.

Of course, most of Diaz’s students in the bakery program — who come from the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation — have autism, which provides Diaz with some unique challenges.

“I always keep in mind that I need to go ‘inside’their world to understand their special needs to understand how to make them a success,” said Diaz, who has developed a variety of unique measuring systems to help some of the more challenged students. “I look upon my students as my children. And a parent always finds a way to help his children.”

It is this willingness to go over and beyond the “job description” that lead to Diaz’s selection as the instructor for the program.

“I had worked with Pedro years earlier and knew about his passion for baking and teaching,” said Robin I. Matusow, a 20-year veteran of the MDCPS Adults With Disabilities Program who currently coordinates the bakery program. “I knew how good he was and when we got approval for the program, I recommend him for the job.” The challenge facing Diaz and the program now is funding. To bring the current workspace — formerly the kitchen and cafeteria at JRE Lee — up to industry standards, the program needs approximately $75,000.

The program, which has received in-kind donations from local bakeries that realize the value of the training the students are receiving, but a major overhaul of the space is needed. A major supermarket chain has already been approached.

“These students are receiving first class quality training,” said Robert Novak, principal of Miami Coral Park Adult, the program’s sponsor. “What we need now to make the program completely successful — and be a model for similar programs around the state and nation — is funding to bring the space up to industry standards.”

For more information about the program, contact Novak at 305-226-6565.

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