A second chance
Had Walmer's first name evokes a tragic irony. Before his friend slammed into a car that was reversing onto a freeway off-ramp at 60 miles per hour — sending Had into a 13day coma and forcing him to don a black eyepatch — Had was on track to graduate from Oregon State University and become an architect. But ever since that fateful day in 1977, he's struggled to maintain em
ployment, and information he processed just minutes ago slips from memory. Still, Had is determined to show that despite his struggles with the past tense, he can enjoy a happy and productive present and future. And his job as a baker for Sarah Bellum's Bakery and Workshop, a nonprofit cupcake shop that enlists workers suffering from brain damage, has helped him do just that. The shop is slated to open in Multnomah Village in October.
"I like being a part of that community. I like being a confident baker. I like the job skills, talking with people, selling skills," Had said. "I feel good." Sarah Bellum's was founded by Dr. Rik Lemoncello, an associate professor of Speech-Language Pathology at Pacific University. Faith Walmer, who is Sarah Bellum's outreach coordinator and Had's wife, said Limoncello wanted to provide an employment space for people suffering from brain damage and decided to merge this conviction with his love of baking. "Rik is a great baker, so he's had a dream for 10 years of combining his skill as a practitioner and a teacher, combining that with baking," Faith said, "and employing folks with brain injury to enable them to get back out into the world." In 2017, four bakers began meeting once a week and bringing Lemoncello's recipes to life at a kitchen in downtown Portland. Sarah Bellum's then sold cupcakes at the OHSU Farmers Market. In August, Faith and Lemoncello took a class at Portland Community College about how to turn a product into a business. During the class, the instructor connected them with a property owner in Multnomah Village. Soon after, the owner and Lemoncello reached an agreement. "They said they had a building in Multnomah Village and wanted a cupcake business with a mission," Faith said. "We contacted the family and we met and just fell in love with each other, and our purpose is so aligned. They've been incredibly supportive." The shop includes cupcake flavors such as chocolate salted caramel, banana walnut, cherry, carrot cinnamon and blueberry lemon. It also features glutenfree and vegan options. "People love the cupcakes. They're fan
tastic cupcakes," Had said. "When people see us in action, they learn the mission of what we're doing. They're on board." Sarah Bellum's currently boasts 10 bakers, many of whom have experienced similar travails. One received a full-ride scholarship to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology before a bar fight led to a serious brain injury; another was an aspiring actor before his injury. Faith said neither has since found steady employment. "Folks with brain injury, we call it an invisible disability because Had, you wouldn't know except for his eyepatch that he had a cognitive disability. But it affects every moment of his life," Faith said. After the car accident, Had completed trade school for architectural drafting — converting designs into technical drawings — and earned a drafting job at OHSU. But he couldn't keep pace with the workload and was laid off. He subsequently lost various jobs as a computer operator and as a gas station attendant before applying for supplemental security income. Along with information processing, social interaction and understanding spatial relationships are much more challenging for him. "It's in some ways tougher when someone has an invisible disability," Faith said. "Had is bright, articulate, and it's
not until you get on the job that you say, 'I don't understand. How come it's taking him so long to do this? What's going on?'" Faith said those with brain injuries need clear and organized instructions, a few extra breaks to prevent exhaustion and coaches who can help guide them through tasks — and that Sarah Bellum's provides such support. Had said working at Sarah Bellum's is a unique experience in that — unlike most jobs — co-workers can empathize with his experience. "I love the relationship with all my peers because I don't have to pretend to be someone other than who I am," he said. "Oftentimes, you have to make it up like, 'Everything is OK. Look at me. I'm OK.' When you know (each other has) a brain injury, there are so many things that are unspoken. We know that with each other." As of mid-September, the bakers served as volunteers, but Faith hopes the business can raise enough money to pay them eventually. The shop held a fundraiser in October to garner more funding. To donate, visit https://www.sarahbellumsbakery.org/donate online. "There really is a person inside of all of us that wants to have a great life," Had said. "There's a way to do it."