Some of the 400 volunteer bakers from InKind Baking are seen creating cupcakes and cookies for an event hosted by a local nonprofit organization.

by Elizabeth Coady

Sugar – both the literal and figurative kind – provided the backdrop when five poets gathered at the Friends Free Library of Germantown on a clear October night last fall to read aloud works honoring strength, struggle and survival.

More than 70 people attended the “empowerment poetry event” hosted by Women In Transition, or WIT, a nonprofit counseling agency that helps women overcome domestic violence.

Dubbed “Amplifying Our Voices: An Evening of Poetry & Community,” the event introduced women in the Germantown area to the vital services offered by WIT, according to Debbie Lee, the agency’s  development and communications associate.

And though poets headlined the event, four artisans of another sort – volunteer bakers of the InKind Baking Project (they are never flaky or crusty) – contributed homemade cookies, biscotti, brownies and lemon shortbread squares as anonymous love offerings to the community at no cost.

The bakers are part of the 400-strong grass roots network founded by architectural historian Molly Lester that donates home-baked goodies to events hosted by Philadelphia’s do-good civic agencies as sweet salve to the problems and predicaments of their clients.

”It’s really meaningful for us to know that groups like InKind Baking exist,” said Lee, who has sought and received baked donations from InKind for two WIT events. “It’s not just supporting us but supporting our clients and everything that they’ve been through. It’s great to have that connection with the community.”

InKind Baking Project is the brainchild of Lester, 31, the tenderhearted daughter of two Presbyterian ministers raised on the idea of “radical hospitality and love.” Lester is the type of person who grieved when she read a story about a young boy who never had a birthday cake. “That broke my heart,” she said.

Baking is how Molly soothes her own soul. And it was that twinge in her chest that prompted her to reach out to the Salvation Army to see if any of its centers would be interested in having monthly birthday cakes made for their residents.  Beginning in 2013, Lester began making two sheet cakes monthly for Salvation Army Red Shield Center at Broad and Fairmount streets.

“It can be something that’s an anonymous message, that a whole bunch of people care about them,” said Lester. Though the costs were out-of-pocket, “I just considered it part of my donations to charitable causes. It was worth it.”

But Lester was just getting started with the birthday cakes. When the newly elected 45th president Donald J. Trump issued during his first month in office a half-baked travel ban against citizens from seven Muslim countries, Lester was “wracked with desire to send a different message. Everything that I believe, and believe that I am told to be, hinges on welcoming a stranger and being loving towards one neighbor, and I don’t think that means just toward documented neighbors.”

Incensed at Trump’s action, Lester put a call out on Facebook for other bakers who might want to bake for neighbors and groups getting the message that they weren’t welcomed. She then created the website Magnetohydrodynamical and invited groups and individuals to submit requests for baked goods for their events.

The idea initially grew slowly, then swelled, and by the time InKind Baking Project celebrated its first birthday in January with a group-baking event at the Old Pine Presbyterian Church in Center City, Lester and her volunteers had served 9,828 people at 152 events. The project routinely provides snacks for legal clinics and English language classes as well as events hosted by such agencies as the Nationalities Service Center, HIAS Pennsylvania, the Salvation Army, the Ronald McDonald House, the Morris Animal Refuge and others. “It’s absolutely gratifying, aside from the messages we get that thank us for the contribution,” said Lester.

The love may be contagious, as Lester says she has gotten calls from individuals as far away as Denver and as close as the Lehigh Valley interested in emulating her project.

Lee of WIT can attest that the baking project feeds the soul. Her nonprofit does not have the budget to provide sweets for every meeting, and having freshly baked goods at events “adds the warmth to the experience.”

“People were raving about the baked goods,” Lee said. “They were delicious … it was just a great night. It wouldn’t have been half as nice without InKind Baking Project stepping up and providing baked goods.” (The baked goods were made by Maya Gutierrez, Amy Woodworth, Lisa Sorino and Becky Freedman.)

Lester celebrated the organization’s birthday in February by renting space at Old Pine Presbyterian Church to allow the volunteer bakers to come together to fulfill that week’s baking requests. Lester sought $1,000 to pay for the event through a GoFundMe crowd-raising campaign and ended up raising double that amount. Funds raised that were not used for the party will help bakers who want to contribute their time but who don’t have the resources to buy supplies.

Of her mission of love, Lester said, “Sometimes it’s tiring, but it’s worth it.”

For more information, email inkindbakingPHL@gmail.com.

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