Sweet Rehabilitation

Pacific University Associate Professor Rik Lemoncello is a speech-language pathologist and expert in cognitive rehabilitation.

He also happens to be a darn good baker.

So, in mid-2016, when Lemoncello was awarded a grant from Pacific to develop a scholarly program, he jumped at the chance to use the funds to create a program combining his interests.

About a year later, he launched Sarah Bellum’s Bakery & Workshop — a nonprofit, social enterprise that helps adult survivors of severe brain injury lead more productive and fulfilling lives. The venture also gives Pacific students in the master’s in speech-language pathology program real-world experience working with clients with brain injury. 

The bakery’s motto is “changing lives one cupcake at a time.” Its name is a play on the term cerebellum — a part of the brain critical to motor control and certain cognitive functions, including language and attention.

“My passion is baking, and cognitive rehabilitation is my [professional] specialty,” said Lemoncello, who in May 2016 received Pacific’s Dr. Thomas (Tommy) Thompson Distinguished Professorship in Education award, which came with funding for a scholarly program.

Pacific’s speech-language pathology program (SLP) is offered through the School of Communication Sciences & Disorders in the College of Education. Most graduates of the program work in healthcare or educational settings.

“I decided to develop a bakery to do functional therapy with folks with brain injury, as opposed to doing drills” with them in an office setting, said Lemoncello, who spent a year preparing to launch Sarah Bellum’s.

A self-taught baker who has made cakes for weddings and other events, Lemoncello developed proprietary cupcake recipes that use high-quality ingredients, most of them organic. He also visited a similar bakery program in St. Louis, Mo., to study its model and worked with colleagues at Pacific’s College of Business to develop marketing and business plans.

Lemoncello also found a home for Sarah Bellum’s. The program is offered through Brain Injury Connections Northwest, a nonprofit that serves survivors of brain injury. Lemoncello is a past board member and current volunteer with the organization.

While he oversees Sarah Bellum’s, his graduate students work one-on-one with individual survivors. Once a week at a commercial kitchen in Portland, the students and “bakers with brain injury” gather to bake and decorate dozens of cupcakes. The students function more as coaches than instructors.

Later, the bakers, under the supervision of students, sell their sweet creations at different venues. During the summer of 2017, Sarah Bellum's had a booth at the weekly farmer’s market at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. For their weekly excursion to the market, the bakers and students wore matching T-shirts and hats emblazoned with Sarah Bellum’s logo.

Sarah Bellum’s has several goals. Chief among them is helping adults with brain injury gain skills and experiences that assist with their rehabilitation and return to the job market.

Returning to work is a major challenge for many brain-injury survivors because of cognitive issues — such as difficulty focusing, remembering things, following instructions and adapting to change. Many also struggle with physical challenges, including balance problems, muscle weakness, fatigue and vision and hearing issues that make it difficult to communicate with others.

More than half of survivors of brain injury don’t return to paid work because of cognitive challenges, Lemoncello said. What’s more, there are limited support services for adult survivors. Sarah Bellum’s is helping to fill the void.

“Baking and decorating cupcakes provides an excellent, functional format for gaining vocational skills and strategies to stay focused, learn to use new equipment and practice new skills. All of this helps promote new learning, self-confidence, and self-regulation,” Lemoncello said.

By interacting with farmer’s market visitors, the bakers also improve their communication skills, gain self-confidence, and help educate the public about brain injury. When Sarah Bellum's sets up shop at farmers' markets and other venues, informational fliers about brain injury are on display at its booth, as are brochures about Sarah Bellum’s and Brain Injury Connections Northwest.

“By meeting our bakers at the farmer’s market, people see that survivors of brain injury are not tragic and can be good, functional employees with the right support,” Lemoncello said.

At one recent farmer’s market, Had Walmer, a brain injury survivor, sat on a stool outside Sarah Bellum’s booth coaxing passersby to try samples of cupcakes and chatting up those who showed interest.

Before his injury, Walmer worked in computer-aided design and drafting and planned to become an architect. But his injury forced him abandon his previous career path because cognitive challenges made it nearly impossible for him to continue to do technical work.

Thankfully, he discovered that he has a knack for sales, and his experience with Sarah Bellum’s has given him a greater confidence in his marketing abilities. He’s also discovered the joy and discipline of cooking, a skill he didn’t have before he got involved with the program.

“I feel confident talking to people and connecting,” said Walmer, who also works at a warehouse club selling weight-loss drinks for an outside vendor.

Students participating in the program have also gained new insights and experience, along with a greater appreciation for their chosen career path.

“It is very different from book learning. I get the real thing right here,” said Christine Calzaretta ’18 SLP, who has coached and supervised Walmer.

“It makes me really appreciate how much progress Had has made since his injury and helped me to appreciate this career path that I’m on,” she said.

Lemoncello isn’t resting on his laurels. He plans to grow Sarah Bellum’s by serving more clients and opening the program up to more students, including those in Pacific’s doctor of occupational therapy program. He also plans to expand sales to additional farmers' markets in the Portland area as well as holiday markets, coffee shops, grocery stores and other outlets. Sarah Bellum’s already offers delivery service in the Portland area. Orders may be placed by emailing Lemoncello — rik@sarahbellumsbakery.org — or calling him at (503) 360-4360.

Ultimately, Lemoncello expects the bakery to sustain itself financially.

“Sarah Bellum’s is the culmination of a nine-year vision for me,” said Lemoncello, explaining that he has dreamed of the concept ever since he got his doctorate in communication disorders and sciences in 2008.

Friday, Aug. 25, 2017