A cupcake bouquet can make anyone's day—but, for some, it can make a world of difference.
Enter Abolition Bakery, the brainchild of Old Brooklyn resident Rita Ballenger. Celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, the home-based bakery operation donates a portion of its proceeds to help combat a devastating issue: human trafficking. (According to the International Labor Organization, more than 40 million people globally are victims of modern slavery.)
The recipe for what would become Abolition Bakery began in 2011, after Ballenger retired from a surgical career at MetroHealth and a teaching stint at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C). To her surprise, the college offered Ballenger college credits as part of her retirement package, which she took advantage of by enrolling in the school’s culinary baking program.
Though Ballenger had already been aware of the human trafficking crisis, she didn't realize the magnitude of the issue until she attended a presentation from the Collaborative to End Urban Trafficking, a Cleveland-based organization.
“I was made aware of human trafficking not only in the [United States], but in this city. I just thought it was a third-world problem,” she says. “I was just really shocked and undone about it."
After conducting additional research, Ballenger decided to direct her baking talents at raising awareness and funds for local organizations that are on the ground, battling trafficking every day.
The first break for Abolition Bakery came in 2013, when Ballenger walked into the now-closed Food Peddler on Fulton Road in Old Brooklyn. “There was a new store that opened up in my neighborhood,” she explains. “I went there and asked if he would like to carry my bread, and he said yes. That was the beginning of Abolition Bakery.”
With help from an entirely volunteer-based staff, Ballenger now churns out loaves of bread, biscotti, and cupcake bouquets to clients around Northeast Ohio. To date, the business has donated more than $10,000 in profits to Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, UnChained Love, and Remember Nhu, just to name a few. The fruits of Ballenger’s efforts can be seen both locally and internationally.
“Within the last year or two, we have been able to provide vocational training for some of the girls involved in [Remember Nhu],” Ballenger says. “We provided cosmetology school for a young lady in Bolivia, and we have been able to provide sewing school for two young girls–who are only in the eighth grade–in Kenya.”
In Northeast Ohio, Abolition Bakery’s efforts can be seen through its work with the Collaborative to End Urban Trafficking, as well as Reaching Above Hopelessness and Brokenness Inc. (RAHAB), an Akron-based organization that operates safe houses for both adults and minors. In addition, Abolition works closely with UnChained Love (also an Old Brooklyn-based organization), and Ballenger has spent "quite a bit of time in Shaker High School doing human trafficking presentations.”
Abolition Bakery also has an ongoing presence at the Old Brooklyn Farmers Market, where the stand regularly sells out.
Bouquets All Day
So what's next for Abolition Bakery after five years? Online ordering and a larger focus on cupcake bouquets.
“I don’t do cakes because there are so many places that do cakes well in Cleveland,” says Ballenger. “The thing that I love to do most is make cupcake bouquets. I would like to see the website create more awareness of the bouquets because that is something no one else in Cleveland currently is doing.”
As far as where the funds from sales will continue to go, Ballenger continues to assess where they are most needed.
This article is part of our On the Ground - Old Brooklyn community reporting project in partnership with Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, Cleveland Development Advisors, and Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Read the rest of our coverage here.