For Shelby Struxness, baking is more than just a hobby. “Baking is one of Shelby’s favorite things to do, right Shelby?” asks Natalia Jasso, executive director of San Antonio's Shelby’s Sweets, which helps provide vocational training to individuals with disabilities.
“Yup!” responds Struxness, co-founder of Shelby's Sweets and a 17-year-old high school junior with aspirations of one day becoming a pastry chef.
“What kind of cupcakes do you like to make the most?” Jasso prods.
“I think it’s the chocolate ones,” says Shelby.
“I like the chocolate ones too, because the frosting comes out so pretty,” agrees Jasso.
The two have been best friends since they were paired together in a youth group program. Struxness has fetal alcohol syndrome and learning disabilities. Jasso, now a college junior, became Struxness’s caregiver over time.
“We used to bake a lot for fun,” says Jasso. “We just started baking for fun, because I knew Shelby really liked to bake. Over Christmas, we were like, oh, we should make more stuff, and make bigger batches.”
The pair began making cookies for neighbors, and were encouraged to start a business. “So we started with peppermint bark, and it just kind of all grew from there,” says Jasso.
And how it's grown. Starting in December 2018, the home bakers went from plying neighbors with peppermint bark to shipping to the entire city of San Antonio. (Regulations don't permit shipments beyond that, unfortunately.) Together, they make all the classics, from red velvet to lemon to white chocolate.
Running Shelby’s Sweets has already helped Struxness on her way to realizing her dream of becoming a pastry chef. “It’s taught me a lot about money management, what to spend it on and what not to spend it on,” she says. Of baking she says, “It’s a lot of fun. It’s messy.”
The two ultimately want to start a nonprofit bakery where they will hire people with disabilities and offer vocational training. Already when they have big orders, friends with disabilities and without come together for baking parties.
“People with disabilities are people, and they work just like everybody else,” says Jasso. “I wanted to have a dignified, meaningful vocational educational opportunity for people with disabilities that’s not demeaning or exploitative.”
In order to help fund the nonprofit, they’ve also expanded to a T-shirt shop. One of the shirts, emblazoned with “Is it accessible, tho?” was borne out of an experience the duo had over spring break with Struxness’s brother Wyatt, who uses a wheelchair. The three struggled through a miniature golf course over spring break, with Wyatt’s chair getting stuck and requiring assistance multiple times. “It was a nightmare,” Struxness recalls.
The team also has a five-day long career camp taking place July 22-26. Funded in part by a grant from the Awesome San Antonio Foundation, the camp caters to people with intellectual, developmental, physical, or sensory disabilities ages 13 and up. Volunteers will teach job skills, baking and decorating, arts and crafts, and other camp activities.
“The ultimate goal is to have our own bakery that employs people with disabilities, but that’s probably not going to be a reality for at least five years,” Jasso says. “We are 17 and 19 — we can not open up a business. But we wanted to at least have opportunities for them to learn valuable skills they can take out into the community.”