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Pioneer Bakery and Café empowers people with disabilities like TikTok star Derek Baker

The Missouri bakery and café was created to provide job opportunities for adults with intellectual disabilities.
In less than six months, Derek Baker said, "It changed my life. … I’m really, really thankful. Having Pioneer is really amazing."
In less than six months, Derek Baker said, "It changed my life. … I’m really, really thankful. Having Pioneer is really amazing."Lafayette Industries, Scott Rinaberger
/ Source: TODAY

Last March, Derek Baker started sharing video clips of his life at home while in quarantine on TikTok. In the videos, he dances, chats with his siblings, works out and shares funny bits to his 2 million followers. What makes the 23-year-old, known as @bakerbanter on the app, stand out among TikTok users is that he shines a light on what it's like living with Down syndrome, or an extra chromosome, which affects his appearance, mind, speech and more.

For people like Derek, finding a job is even harder than it already is, with many employers and workplaces not set up to accommodate people with disabilities and their needs. That's where Pioneer Bakery and Café comes into Derek's story. He was offered a job at the Kirkwood, Missouri establishment in October and shared the happy news on TikTok.

@bakerbanter

We’re so proud of our guy! Congrats D-man!!! ##jobinterview ##wholesome ##fyp

♬ original sound - bakerbanter

"So, what just happened?" Derek's mother, Valerie, asks off-screen in the video.

"We just came to interview. It was so awesome right now. I'm so excited. I got a job!" Derek excitedly responds, before breaking into a happy dance.

Derek loves to work the "front of the house," greeting customers to Pioneer and meeting new people, especially fans of his @bakerbanter TikTok.@bakerbanter / Instagram

"It's pretty overwhelming when you have an adult child with a disability and they get out of the school system," Valerie told TODAY. "The key is having employers who have the patience and the understanding and the desire to help adults with disabilities and help them find meaningful employment."

Derek's mom, Valerie Baker, was with him when he first received the happy news that he had been hired at Pioneer Bakery and Café.@bakerbanter / Instagram

Pioneer Bakery and Café in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis, is a collaboration between Lafayette Industries' StepUp program and McArthur's Bakery. The bakery opened on Oct. 1, 2020 and launched a two-year course for adults with disabilities to show them how to work in and manage a restaurant environment.

"The concept of the Pioneer Bakery Café here actually was inspired by two family friends of mine, both with children who had different special needs," Scott Rinaberger, one of Pioneer's owners told TODAY. "And once services were done for them, the question was, 'What now? What's next?'"

Cat Woerner, a program coordinator at StepUp, explained that Pioneer employees get in-person instruction before they get to apply their knowledge to hands-on work: "We're in the classroom and we're learning those social skills that everybody needs whether you have a disability or not. And then we go to Pioneer, where the students basically intern, and they're able to display those skills."

"This program gives these adults with disabilities that same sense of self-worth," Valerie said. "Being important, being worth it, being needed, being productive, being a contributor to the world around you really, being a leader."

The opportunities Pioneer Bakery and Café offer to employees are just like those at any other restaurant.

"Trainees do everything from work the point of sale (to) pour cups of coffee in that area and interact directly with the customer," said Rinaberger. "The trainees are baking bread, you know, they're mixing, they're measuring, they're decorating."

Aside from cookies, Derek also recommends everyone try Pioneer's gooey butter cake.Courtesy Lafayette Industries

Jenna Baker, one of Derek's sisters, told TODAY, "They don't just employ people with disabilities, they are training people with disabilities to be the best versions of themselves."

Through Pioneer, Derek, who is one of 12 trainees in the inaugural course, has learned everything from using a cash register and decorating cookies to coping strategies for handling stress. At the end of each work day, Derek said it's all about sharing a positive attitude with customers.

Derek Baker with his sisters Jenna and Katy Baker, who he often features on his @bakerbanter TikTok.@bakerbanter / Instagram

"I do bring joy to people," he said.

"The program, it's just beautiful seeing it in action. And when the trainees are here, the whole space just gets energetic and electrifying," Rinaberger observed. "Watching them come in, get their aprons on and get ready, it's just incredible. And I'm humbled by seeing and watching the whole program work."

In addition to interacting with customers, Derek also gets to prepare food before it's served.Courtesy Lafayette Industries

Valerie added, "It's really about the people opening their arms, understanding that differences aren't always bad, and allowing other people, who maybe are a little bit different, into their world, and seeing the value that they bring."

Derek is grateful for his fulfilling job. In less than six months, he said, "It changed my life. … I’m really, really thankful. Having Pioneer is really amazing."