Emma Bushman was watching a TV special on child entrepreneurs when inspiration struck. "Emma asked, 'Can kids really start their own business?'" recalls Alison, her mother. "I said sure, but rather than make money for herself, I suggested she and her twin sister, Amy, do something for others. They might want to think about the families in the homeless shelter where the girls donated toys and books they collected at their birthday party each year."
That summer the 7-year-old twins spent a week at a cooking camp in their Cincinnati hometown. One day they returned with a Mason jar filled with the dry ingredients for oatmeal cookies. "Amy and Emma now say that was their aha moment," Alison says. Thinking about how much they enjoyed baking and bonding in the kitchen with their mom, the girls decided to give departing shelter families a jar of cookie mix so that they could inaugurate their new home by making cookies together.
Alison and the twins perfected a dry recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip—their favorite—that would fit into quart-size Mason jars. In October 2008, they launched the Bake Me Home Tote Bag Program. "We learned that hygiene items could not be purchased with food stamps, and as a mother, I was upset when I realized we might be giving cookies to children who couldn't always brush their teeth," Alison says. So in addition to cookie mix and kitchen utensils, each bag also contains toothpaste, toothbrushes and a $10 grocery store gift card to buy butter and eggs.
Initially they worked out of the kitchen of their local church, where they could fit more volunteers to help fill totes and fulfill deliveries throughout the state. After nearly five years, Bake Me Home moved into its own building, complete with offices, conference rooms and a kitchen. Donations, both from local supporters and through their website, have funded the rent and renovations. "When we first began, if someone had told me that we would have our own building, I wouldn't have believed them," Emma, now 13, says.
But the girls didn't stop there. In 2009 they started the Picture Me Home program, in which a team of volunteer professional photographers take portraits of families at shelters, food pantries and churches—and everyone receives a framed photo. "This program is remarkable because we have the most intimate contact with the families we serve," Alison says. "We once found ourselves hugging and crying with a mom who had just moved into a domestic violence shelter. She had to flee on the spot and leave all her pictures of her children behind, and that one picture we provided may be the only one she now owns of her kids."
The girls also started the offshoot Bake Me Back Home in 2010. For $30, a donor can choose a service member to be sent four dozen homemade cookies—enough for sharing. So far, over 7,000 of the girls' signature oatmeal chocolate chip cookies have been mailed overseas.
Amy and Emma's next goal was to get more children involved in charity work. "I think everyone should be helping their community; if they do it as a kid, they'll do it as an adult," Amy says. Two years ago, after receiving a grant from the Sodexo Foundation, the twins started the Bake It Forward Program, which provides a $100 grant to three children every year. Applications are welcome from kids in grades 2 through 9 who have completed a summer community service project for a charity that benefits children. The winners' $100 award is donated to the nonprofit of their choice, and they also receive a Bake It Forward T-shirt and a jar of Bake Me Home cookie mix.
As Bake Me Home has kept on growing, it's become a family affair. Alison's role as president has developed into a full-time volunteer position, and her husband, Lee, attends most events and is always ready to lend a hand. The girls are proud of all their good work, which started with a jar of flour, sugar and oats. "Ironically, we never baked those cookies," Alison says. "We still have the original jar from the cooking camp that inspired it all."
Amy and Emma's Signature Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe
1 1/3 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oatmeal (quick oats)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 stick melted butter
1 cup Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Mix all ingredients together with a large spoon. Drop spoonfuls of dough (2 tbsp per cookie) onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. The Bushmans recommend using uninsulated cooking sheets. Cool on baking sheet for 3 minutes before moving cookies to a cooling rack.
Makes 24 cookies.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.