MIDDLEBURY — It’s not unusual for bakers to engage in a little hyperbole when promoting their products.
But when Rachel Wollum claims her cookies are “simply divine,” one can hardly accuse her of stretching the truth.
Not only do Rachel’s cookies taste heavenly, they are baked with love in the basement kitchen of Middlebury’s St. Mary’s Catholic Elementary School.
And Rachel, who was born with Down syndrome, contributes the profits from the sale of her cookies to St. Mary’s School, which has used the proceeds to buy some learning software for students. Long-term plans call for St. Mary’s to establish a scholarship in Rachel’s name.
If you ask Rachel, 23, she’ll tell you she bakes the cookies to “have fun.” But her parents, Joel and Nancy Wollum, and her adviser, Becky Sabourin of the Counseling Service of Addison County, know that Rachel is also doing it to help the many friends she has found within the St. Mary’s Church congregation — and by extension, within the Middlebury community.
Sabourin spoke on Monday as her diminutive charge slipped another tray of chocolate chip cookies into the oven — Wollum is short in stature but a veritable powerhouse in the kitchen.
“I admire what she does to support the school and the community,” Sabourin said. “I am very proud to be working with her.”
Rachel caught the baking bug several years ago as a student at the Patricia Hannaford Career Center’s Diversified Occupations program. Her baked goods proved so tantalizing to the taste buds that her instructors suggested she wrap and sell them — which she did under the label “Rachel’s Cookies” at several stores around town.
She donated the proceeds, minus costs for ingredients, to the Diversified Occupations program. But she had to suspend her baking activities last year when she graduated from the program.
“We needed a kitchen,” Joel Wollum recalled.
By that time, Rachel had been introduced to the St. Mary’s Church community by the Wollums’ neighbors, Buck and Laureen Rogers. Rachel started attending church services and the Wollums learned about an unused kitchen in the basement of the St. Mary’s School. So Joel made a proposal.
“I offered to re-do the kitchen with the understanding that Rachel would use it a couple hours a week to bake her cookies, and Rachel would give the profits to the school,” he said. “Everybody wins.”
St. Mary’s Church and school leaders enthusiastically endorsed the idea.
“It blew us away,” said St. Mary’s School Principal Angela Pohlen.
So Joel went to work on the space, and Rachel started baking there this past April. She and Sabourin arrive at the kitchen at around 8 a.m. every weekday and spend a solid two hours baking anywhere from two- to five-dozen cookies. Chocolate chip are the biggest sellers. Rachel also makes her personal favorite, oatmeal raisin cookies, one day a week.
While the words “decadent” and “sinful” may not be the most appropriate descriptions of the cookies, let’s just say they are selling quickly. And at $1 each, the customer is getting a bargain with the added knowledge of knowing the profits are going to educational purposes. Sabourin attributes the rich taste and chewy consistency of Rachel’s cookies to the fact she uses both butter and margarine, as well as dark brown sugar (as opposed to light) in her cookie dough.
Rachel is making a couple hundred cookies a week, a number she would like to increase to 250. The cookies can be found at such locations as Round Robin, County Tire, Rouse Tire Service Inc., Belladonna and of course St. Mary’s School. Rachel’s reputation is generating a good number of special orders, especially at this time of year, when many people enjoy a cookie with a nice cup of hot coffee on a raw winter’s day.
The cookies have already yielded around $1,000 for St. Mary’s School, a sum that has covered the costs of software that is allowing students to learn how to type. Rachel was scheduled to be honored by St. Mary’s students at an assembly on Tuesday, Dec. 18.
“Rachel is a wonderful presence here,” Pohlen said. “She is helping (students) appreciate that contributions can be made … by people in all walks of life.”
And her hard work is evident to anyone who walks into the school.
“Starting the day with the smell of fresh-baked cookies sure doesn’t hurt,” Pohlen said.
Rachel’s parents are understandably proud.
“This is something Rachel can do and feel productive, and the community benefits,” Joel said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]