With its bustling location and gorgeous display of cookies, brownies and cakes, the Hearts & Flour Bakery tent is a popular place for hungry eyes and eager mouths at the Evanston Farmers’ Market

Unbeknownst to many weekly visitors, Hearts & Flour bakes with more than just brownies in mind. The Chicago-based bakery provides meaningful work opportunities for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Hearts & Flour Bakery is a work program within Misericordia Heart of Mercy, a Catholic charity focused on caring for those with developmental disabilities in the greater Chicago area. What started as a small operation, now employs more than 80 Misericordia residents.

Grace Wang

Participants create and package a variety of baked goods with the help of professional pastry chefs and community members, said Heart of Mercy director of creative arts Julie O’Sullivan. 

“We strive to make sure the residents have the highest quality of life and can live as independently as possible,” said O’Sullivan. “They work alongside staff and volunteers and do anything from scooping cookies to cracking eggs, to packaging the baked items to getting the items ready to be sold and shipped.”

“Some even love to wash dishes,” O’Sullivan added.

O’Sullivan said Hearts & Flour Bakery emphasizes residents’ abilities rather than their disabilities. The Bakery’s careful attention to detail and residents’ needs ensures employees are able to perform the task at hand. 

Grace Wang

“If one of them has to put six cookies into a bag, there will be a plastic sheet of paper with six circles — a cookie on each circle. They will then pick up each cookie and put it into a bag,” said Misericordia Heart of Mercy staff member and tent volunteer Jonathan Utley. “We do this to avoid miscounting.”

Utley began volunteering with Misericordia Heart of Mercy after his son moved to the Chicago campus in 2001. Seeing the benefits firsthand made Utley a strong advocate for the bakery’s mission.

“We are not a cookie machine, we are a people program. We make cookies, we make brownies, but we are about the people,” Utley said. “If we can show off those people, that would really be the ultimate goal."

Grace Wang

Hearts & Flour Bakery aims to erase the stigma around intellectual and mental disabilities. The organization recognizes the accommodations residents need to be successful but does not believe this should interfere with their quality of life, outside opportunities or self identity. Disability is not how they define personhood.

“The Hearts & Flour Bakery is a wonderful opportunity for the community to support the residents, their work opportunity programs and the mission of Misericordia itself,” said O’Sullivan. “The community can see first-hand how hard the residents work and how dedicated they are to making quality bakery goods.”

Hearts & Flour Bakery is proud to see a number of residents enter the larger labor market after their time with the organization.

Grace Wang

“Some of our residents have gone on to work in commercial bakeries and kitchens in the community, in the food service industry, as well as a variety of other employers, benefitting from the work skills obtained in the Bakery,” O’Sullivan said.

There are more to the heart-shaped brownies and shortbread cookies than meets the eye at the Evanston Farmers’ Market. Hearts & Flour Bakery calls on the community to set aside damaging misconceptions about disabilities and acknowledge those with intellectual disabilities as equal. Coming to this conclusion with a chocolate chip cookie in hand makes the message even sweeter. 

Photos courtesy of Misericordia Heart of Mercy.