All photos/art by Ian Aldrich
In early December 2003, Deborah DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV) in Warwick, received a call from a woman who wanted to make a donation. For DeBare, whose agency oversees shelters around the state, it wasn’t an unusual inquiry. What was different this time, however, was the nature of the gift. The caller, Lydia Walshin, from Glocester, wasn’t looking to give money or drop off clothing. She was offering holiday cookies, which she and her friends wanted to make exclusively for the families RICADV serves.
DeBare was grateful but thought the gift missed the mark. “I was thinking that there were so many greater needs to fulfill,” she says. “But I was struck by her passion and vision. She just had this exuberance.”
A few days later, DeBare saw why, when Walshin strolled into the agency’s office with a large plastic container stuffed with cookies, as bright and beautiful as a box of Christmas toys. They came in different shapes–animals, snowmen, ice-cream cones–all individually wrapped in plastic and colored ribbons with a simple message stuck on the back: “Made just for you, with natural ingredients and love.” In a place where people’s days are shaped by securing life’s necessities, this little touch of luxury struck a chord with kids, mothers, even the staff.
“The people we work with are in crisis,” says DeBare. “They’re dealing with issues of safety. They need a bed, they need a roof, they’re having to make hard decisions. So to then all of a sudden have someone say to you, No matter what, somebody cares about you, that’s a transformative thing.”
Call it “the power of food,” says Walshin, who teaches cooking and writes about recipes and kitchen gadgets on her three blogs: theperfectpantry.com, soupchick.com, and ninecooks.com. “When you get a group of people in the kitchen to cook, there’s a bonding that goes on,” she adds. “A family is formed, and there’s a lot of good and creative energy that comes out of that.”
Which is why, about a year before she called DeBare, Walshin was wondering whether she could expand that energy beyond the kitchen to help people connect with others in their communities. So, after a holiday cookie-baking party with friends, she decided to donate what they’d made to a social-service agency in Boston. Staff and families loved the gift, which spurred Walshin and her group to give again, then several more times.
These days, Walshin is connecting in ways she never imagined. She’s established a nonprofit, aptly called “Drop In & Decorate,” around the whole endeavor. She hosts cookie-decorating get-togethers during the holidays as well as in early May, just before Mother’s Day. More impressively, she’s inspired others to follow her lead. To date, Drop In & Decorate events have taken place in 33 states as well as in Canada, Germany, India, Japan, and the Dominican Republic–and more than 20,000 cookies have found their way to 116 different social-service agencies.
It’s not just for foodies or seasoned bakers–that’s not the point. You just have to want a make a difference in your community, Walshin says: “It’s a very simple idea: bake, decorate, donate. These are more than cookies. They’re an individual gift. They’re a piece of someone’s heart and soul. They reflect someone’s very best intentions.”
For more on Lydia Walshin’s organization, visit: dropinanddecorate.org