Silicon Valley faces severe challenges with underserved children, highlighted by its overwhelmed foster care system where one child enters every two minutes. Homelessness is also a major issue, with over 1,500 youths aged 18-24 homeless in San Jose, the highest in any major city. Additionally, about 60,000 children live in poverty in Santa Clara County. These statistics highlight the critical need for targeted support and interventions for these vulnerable children.
Alison Bakewell started as a Cake4Kids baker in 2013. After her first cake, she decided her skills were better used in operations and joined the Cake4Kids operations team as a volunteer in 2014 so she could leave the baking and decorating to more talented bakers and instead put her IT skills to work to help set Cake4Kids up for growth. She joined the operations team full-time in 2017, first as Director of Operations and now as Executive Director. Before joining Cake4Kids, Alison spent more than 25 years in the high-tech industry in progressive IT roles, up to the executive ranks. Besides Cake4Kids, Alison enjoys golf, kayaking, hiking, and cooking for family and friends.
Well, I'll start with how it all began. Our founder, Libby Grunder, was reading an article about a young foster girl in the Midwest. And she had just been placed in a new home. She came home from school on her birthday, and her foster mom had baked her a birthday cake. The young lady walked through the door. Mom showed her the cake and said Happy Birthday. And the young lady burst into tears and ran to her room. The foster mom said, ” Oh my God, is it the wrong flavor? I don't know what, you know. Why is she so upset? She followed her into her room and said, if you don't like chocolate, I'll bake you another cake. You know, what can I do to make this better? And the young girl said that she wasn't crying because she was sad. She was happy. She had never had a birthday cake before in her life. So Libby thought if that was happening in the Midwest, it was probably also happening in her community, and she wanted to do something about it. So she rounded up her friends. She was quite the organizer and started partnering with a foster family agency in Silicon Valley. In our first year, we delivered 13 cakes, and that was Libby and her friends baking and providing to the foster youth. So, over time, we've expanded our mission. We don't just serve foster youth anymore. We serve at-risk youth, and that includes kids in foster homes, in group homes, survivors of domestic violence or human trafficking, youth experiencing homelessness in homeless shelters, unaccompanied youth who are living rough, which means they might not even be living in a shelter, they could be in their car under a freeway, you know, couch surfing from home to home. They get services from human and social services organizations in the area, and we partner with them to get the requests for the kids they serve. Then, our bakers deliver to our partners, never to the youth, and we do that for the privacy and safety of the youth. As you can imagine, someone who's escaped domestic violence or human trafficking does need their privacy for their protection. So, we extend that to all of the youth that we serve. So, over time, the population we've served has grown, so we don't just serve foster youth. We serve low-income families. We serve youth experiencing homelessness, and that could be in a homeless shelter, that could be living rough, or maybe they're living in a tent, in a car, under an overpass, they're couch surfing at friends' homes. We also serve survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. And we serve refugees. So our population has grown. Also, at-risk youth, some of those could be runaway youth. Some of them could be youth looking for a safe spot after school, and several organizations in the area provide that safe spot for LGBTQ plus or for kids trying to escape violence in their neighborhood, a safe place to be. And so we partner with agencies that serve all those populations.
So, several years ago, a friend of mine got me engaged with an organization that supported foster youth, the Silicon Valley Child Advocates. And it just really struck me how many foster youth there were in our area and how they were left behind and forgotten. And I retired from 20-plus years in the tech industry and was looking for things to do. And I stuffed a lot of envelopes and had a lot of nonprofits. And one day, I was reading the paper, and it said cake for kids, and you can bake for foster youth. I'm like, how hard could it be to bake a cake? That sounds fantastic. And you know, my last name's Bakewell, so this is perfect. Well, I baked my first cake, and baking was not the hard part. Decorating is hard. So even though my last name's Bakewell, this wasn't the perfect fit I thought it would be. A couple of months after my first cake, they reached out and said we were looking for help in operations. I have an IT background, so I reached out saying that, you know, I'd like to help them with IT. And I did that as well as work in operations. We were wholly volunteer-run at the very beginning. So, I volunteered for several years doing that. And then, our director of operations retired, and so I took over that role. Then, recently, our executive director retired, so I took on that role. Every day, I wake up thinking I have the best job in the world because some child will smile today because of what our organization is doing.
I'd love to. There are so many. Several years ago, this was probably my favorite story, and I told it repeatedly, but we didn't get to meet. But we do ask for feedback on every cake delivery, and we often get stories from the case worker or the family about what the cake meant to the youth. So this woman had been living in Silicon Valley for a long time and was struggling to afford rent and groceries; I mean, the cost in Silicon Valley's gone up so much. And she was working three jobs trying to keep her family afloat. So her son's birthday was coming up, and he wasn't looking forward to it because he knew they didn't have much money and there wouldn't be a big celebration. But she, one of the organizations she was getting services from, partners with us; they asked if she wanted to get a cake for her son and asked, you know, what would you like the theme to be on the cake? So she let them know that her son loved Frank Sinatra, his grandfather, who was his idol. He always loved Frank Sinatra and introduced his grandson to it. And so this young man always thought that Frank Sinatra was someone to look up to and an icon, and he just wanted to be like Frank. So one of our bakers baked a Frank Sinatra cake, and she's quite the artist. She drew a picture of Frank Sinatra on the cake. And you know, the mom went to pick up the cake from the agency and said, I wasn't expecting much, just a plain cake would be great, more than what we were expecting. This Frank Sinatra cake and the beautiful artwork on the cake blew her away. And the cake said, you know, the young man's name, and may you live to be 100 years old. And when she got home and showed the young man, he burst into tears. He was so overwhelmed by the gesture that someone had made for him. He said that his wish was that that person could get a million dollars because what they did for him was just beyond what he could think of a way to repay them. So he was just overjoyed. And the mom said, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You made my son, who's a little bit different, feel like he was the king of the world. And really, that's what we're trying to do: make these kids feel special. Another perfect example of making a difference in a young person's life, and maybe it doesn't sound like a big deal to some people, but you know. Every small change is good. Every small change. So this young lady, a child advocate of Silicon Valley, has volunteers who have children in the area who are in foster care. So this young lady, an ager, was non-verbal, and this advocate had been with her for several years and didn't get much interaction from the young lady. She requested cookies for her birthday. That's what the young lady wanted. So the cookies came, and the advocate brought them to her at home and shared them with her. The young lady took a bite of a cookie, smiled, and said, good. And the advocate said that was the first words he'd spoken to her in three years. Wow. So the power of someone doing something sweet for you turns around into a change in someone's viewpoint of other people, in the perspective of themselves. And how they start reacting to the world around them, which is essential for some of these kids who have been through many sorts of trauma and hardship. Hearing that someone cared enough to take the time out of their day makes them look at themselves and their surroundings differently.
Sure. And sometimes the kids don't request the cake. Sometimes, it's a surprise for the kids. So, each child is working, their family is receiving services, or the child is working with a caseworker at a human or social services agency. And the caseworker might ask the child, ‘What kind of cake do you want?' So, they get to choose the flavor and the theme; if there are any dietary restrictions, we can accommodate that. So we get all that information from them. Sometimes, a caseworker knows the child well enough and wants to surprise them on their birthday, so they might not even know they will get a cake. They can also choose whether they want a cake, cupcakes, cookies, bars, or brownies. So there's a Menu. Yeah, so it's, you know, we want to do what they want. So, the caseworker puts in a request with us. We post it on a portal. And all of our volunteers have access to that portal. And they choose the request that works for their schedule. So they see everything they signed up to bake for in the region. So, let's say they want to bake for Santa Clara County. That's all they see. But we deliver all up and down the Bay Area. So they could be, someone could say, bake in San Mateo, Santa Clara, and San Francisco. So they see all the available requests and choose based on their schedule, what they like to bake, and how far it is to deliver. Once they signed up for the particular request seven days beforehand, we emailed them to confirm that they were still on to bake. And that's important because we never want to let down a child. So if we accept the request and tell them they're getting a cake, we want to ensure that we get it. So the baker confirms with us, then they bake and decorate in their own home. Then, they deliver to the partner agency. And then, once that cake arrives at the agency, a couple of things can happen. If it's a homeless shelter, they'll probably enjoy that cake there, maybe after dinner with all the other residents. If it's a social services agency where families come in and pick things up, then the family would go in, pick it up, bring it back home, and enjoy it there. If it's an after-school program, they probably want it with all their friends in the program. So there are several ways that that child can celebrate with that cake. And one of the things that we hear over and over again is, especially from foster youth, you know, they get moved from home to home quite a bit. And when they move from one home to another, they don't have that many belongings. And often they don't even have a suitcase to take with them. They're packing up a garbage bag and moving to the next home. So they don't feel like they have a lot they can call their own. So when they get a cake that's theirs, and then they can share it with their foster family, or they can share it with their friends, that's a massive deal to them, that they have something of their own that they can choose to share with other people. So that cake makes a huge difference to those kids, and they can decide, yeah, I'm going to share it with, you know, the kids after school, or I'm going to share it at home with my foster family. I'm going to have a meeting with my bio family. I'm going to wait and share it with them. So, there are options for the kids, but in the end, they know they got something just for them, and it's what they wanted. They asked for, you know, a minion cake, or they asked for cupcakes with butterflies on them, or, you know, some of our top requests are Minecraft and not so much Call of Duty anymore, but lots of video games. Unicorns. Oh my gosh, unicorns all the time. Little girls love unicorns. Superheroes. There are tons and tons of superhero requests.
Then, we get some particular requests. We got one a young lady wanted—a girl on a painted horse, carrying a football, riding towards the end zone. I see. It's a particular request. We had another one who said, I want a picture of a girl sitting on her bed in her bedroom reading her cell phone. Just interesting. And then we'll get, you know, Baker's Choice. And then the bakers get to go and do whatever they want. And they came up with the most unique designs. It's incredible how much passion, creativity, and love the bakers put into the cakes.
Absolutely. I think I mentioned these kids often have gone through unbelievable trauma. Just think about getting taken away from your family and put into a foster home. Think about not having a house to go home to; you're going to sleep in a car, or you're going to sleep in a tent somewhere. Or think about being ripped from your homeland and coming to a brand new country. You don't speak the language. You don't know anyone in the area, and you have to make your way and find all these resources to make your life better. The last thing that people are thinking about is a birthday cake. But being celebrated on your birthday that's something everyone takes for granted and loves. Everyone wants that acknowledgment on their birthday. Many of these kids are 18, 20, and 24 years old, and no one's ever celebrated them on their birthday. So, getting a birthday cake isn't just a sweet treat. They acknowledge that that person is seen and heard and that people care about them. And for these kids going through all these things, their self-esteem is very low. When someone takes the opportunity to do something for them to show them that they're worth it, that goes a long way to building their self-esteem and giving them the tools they need for that self-esteem to be successful in the future. So you see a lot of kids who don't think they're worth it, and someone does something nice for them, and all of a sudden, they're like, oh, maybe I am worth it. I can invest in myself, too, since I'm worth it, which turns things around for them.
Absolutely. Our volunteers are the heart and soul of this organization. And they go through so much to ensure the cake is as unique as possible. So, one of our volunteers baked a beautiful Moana cake for a young lady. And it had everything, right? It was the blue waves, frosting, and some graham crackers for the beach and shells. And everything was just perfect. And she finished decorating it the night before the delivery. And then off to bed, she went. The following day, she came into the kitchen to box the cake and prepare it for delivery. And there was her 80-pound Labrador and a half-eaten cake. So the cake, the dog enjoyed the cake, but now we have a cake they have a cake problem. Yeah, it's a little bit of cake drama, right? So she had to work that day, and the delivery was later in the afternoon, so she quickly whipped up a cake before work, went off to work, came back home, decorated the cake again, all the same, Moana decorations, boxed it up and delivered it actually on time. Wow.
I mean, she hustled her butt to make sure—she couldn't imagine this young lady not having a cake on her birthday. And so she went above and beyond to ensure she got that cake to the young lady. And we have volunteers who drive through snow storms. Where across the country, and some places' weather's not so great. And three or four years ago, people's power was out when we had all those fires in the Bay Area. You know, we had so many cake cancellations. I'm sorry, I can't bake my ovens out. And we just had so many volunteers. All we had to do was post something in our volunteer forum saying, you know, people can't bake because their power's out, and we just had volunteers coming out of the woodwork. I've got power; I'll take care of it. You know, they hadn't signed up to bake the cake. It was due on Monday; this is Sunday, and all the power's out. And we had so many volunteers to ensure those kids got a cake. And we have bakers who sign up to be emergency bakers. So they say, my schedule's flexible and I can, you know, call me at the last minute if you need a cake. So that happens obviously with COVID; that happened a lot. People would bake a cake and then find out someone in their home had COVID, and we're like, okay, keep that cake. That's not going to the child. And we just put out a call to our bakers, and we would always get someone to step up and bake that cake. Our volunteers go above and beyond. You know, there's no minimum or maximum amount you can participate. We have bakers who signed up five or six years ago and didn't have the time to bake. COVID happened, things changed, they're working from home, and suddenly, have the time to bake. Five years later, they started baking with us. And we hear from them that I had no idea how rewarding this would be. I love to bake, I always bake, and my family's sick to death of eating it. This is the perfect thing. Now, I get to bake a cake for a child who wouldn't have one. But I didn't know how I would feel when I dropped that cake off. Knowing that some child will smile and feel like someone knows they're important. So that's really why our volunteers are so engaged and why they are the heart and soul of the organization.
Sure. We keep saying sweet treat, and people think when they look at cake for kids, they go, oh, that is so cute, wow. I can't imagine people not having a cake. That's so nice. But it's more than pleasant. It is changing lives for kids, and we hear that repeatedly. We listen to it a couple of different ways. We listen to it from caseworkers who say, you know, I've been working with this kid for a long time, they don't trust adults, they don't believe that people are going to do what they say, they're going to do, and when I say, what kind of cake do you want, and then I deliver this beautiful cake, it builds a bond and some trust between the caseworker and the youth, and that helps them be able to help the youth through whatever they're going through, whether it's trauma or it's you know, a difficult situation with family or, you know, like again, experiencing homelessness or whatever it is that bond them between the case worker and the youth becomes much more vital. So we're just a little side benefit to the case workers, but that's a massive benefit for them. But also, we're changing the perspective of the youth. And because we do ask for feedback on every case, caseworkers often share stories about the youth and how it's made a difference to them. And for us being able to tell those stories, that's how we're changing the narrative around. It's not just a sweet treat; and it's more. And I have a perfect example, and I have a quote for you from when a caseworker had a young man living in a group home for foster care. And he'd had a troubled past and was trying to stay out of trouble. He spent much time at the house because it was a safe place, better than being out on the streets and getting into trouble. So, the caseworker said, I'm excited to share that even though my client does not like to celebrate his birthday due to past trauma, the party was a success. Having a birthday cake and a celebration, we were able to change the narrative and facilitate a party with your help. Although we can't change the past, we can change the future. And that's what's important here, right? We're never going to change the past for these kids. But if we can make that one small change that changes their outlook for their future, we've come a long way toward helping them have a bright and prosperous future. So there's another one. I don't know. I love to hear the requests from the kids. These are all great, yeah. There's another young man, under ten, and he's a taciturn young man, and the caseworker said he never really showed excitement. But they asked for a minion cake, and that's his favorite. So he started dancing around the room, doing a happy dance, and he's like, oh my gosh, a minion cake, I can't believe it. I'm just glad that people care about me. So, all of a sudden, he realizes that someone cares. He hadn't thought that before the cake. So this drives the point that it's more than the sweet tree.
Who wants to bake a cake for your organization? You don't need to be a professional baker. Okay. I'm not a professional baker. My very first cake, I was so stressed out. I even forgot that I was supposed to bake it and deliver it, so I baked the cake that night as soon as I remembered, and the following day, I had to rush out, find decorations, put the cake together, and get it to the agency. I was half an hour late getting it to the agency and was like, oh my God, I never want to do this again. This was so stressful. And then I just started thinking about what that child thought about getting that cake, and I thought, my stress is about baking the perfect cake. I don't need to worry about that. I must ensure that I put a lot of heart, soul, and love into that cake. So, our bakers don't need to be professional bakers. We ask that you have good decorating skills. I didn't have it. I certainly learned over time. And you can choose what you want to bake. So I don't bake cakes anymore. I'm not very good at decorating cakes. I do cupcakes, cookies, spars, and brownies. I'm much better at decorating those. So if you think that this is something you want to do and think I am not a good cake decorator, don't worry. I don't do them either. And I still get the amount of satisfaction I get from baking. I just delivered four dozen cupcakes on Monday, and it felt so good to know that it was a group birthday party and that they were all going to have a grand celebration of the birthdays for that month. It just made it worth it. Squeezing in that extra time to bake the cupcakes during the day, and, you know, I got up early to make sure the frosting was all done, and sprinkles were on it. You don't have to; it doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't have to look professional. A lot of the cakes if people go to our website and they see, or they check us out on Instagram or Facebook and see these gorgeous cakes, don't worry; not all of them are like that, especially mine. You don't have to have a beautiful cake, but you do have to have a lot of heart and soul. It's the passion you put into the baking. It is the passion you put into the baking. You have to want to make that kid feel extra special. And then your treats, whatever you bake, will come out fantastic.