The Casey’s Cookies kitchen staff, from left, Charissa Gordon, kitchen aide Spencer Humbert, Casey Torman, Lauren Chouinard, Jerry Pohe, volunteer Juilene Boyer and Maurice Gordon.
LARGO – Five years ago, Lori Torman's daughter, Casey, graduated with a special diploma from Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg.
Casey was born with a rare disorder called Goldenhar syndrome, a congenital birth defect causing deformities of the face and spine and some mental disabilities. Realizing there weren’t many jobs for their daughter, Lori and her husband, Barry, decided to start a business for adults with special needs.
“My husband and I are Christians, and we wanted to do God’s will, so we prayed about it and cookies came to mind,” said Lori. “We wanted to bring young adults with different abilities – some higher functioning and some lower functioning – together.”
In a cookie company, there is a lot of repetition like scooping, cleaning and sealing the bags. Adults with special needs are good with repetition and structure, Lori explained.
The Tormans decided to develop a 501(c)3 charity and call it Casey’s Cookies, after their daughter. The baking goes on in a fully licensed commercial kitchen they rent in Largo.
“It works out well. It’s a safe and healthy environment. It’s good for employees and consumers,” Lori said.
In 2012, Casey’s Cookies became The Casey Project. Their mission is to promote independence, improve the quality of life for developmentally and physically disabled adults through on-the-job training and employment and to develop a residential community where the participants can live and work in a safe and nurturing environment.
It was important to the Tormans to pay the employees. Today they have seven disabled employees who are paid a minimum wage as well as two who are not disabled to help run the day-to-day operations. The employees usually work Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. until about 1 p.m. There also are about 15 volunteers who help out throughout the week.
The company bakes about 300 cookies a day from scratch and sells them to individuals and businesses. During the holidays, the employees can bake up to 700 cookies a day.
They do have some regular accounts like Google’s New York office that orders 700 cookies a week. Lori said this partnership makes a big impact on what they can do. Still, they are always looking for more businesses to purchase their cookies or to sell their cookies at their storefront.
“There were times we wondered if we could keep the business open,” said Lori. “Cookies sales weren’t covering the costs. We stayed committed though.”
Lori said that even though it was a struggle at times, she could see God’s hand every step of the way.
“When we thought we had to close the doors, something amazing would happen. Someone donated $5,000, then $10,000,” she said.
In 2013, the Tampa Bay Lightning named Lori and her husband as the 27th Lightning Community Heroes of the Year and presented them with a $50,000 check to use for Casey’s Cookies.
“Just another example of something amazing that happened,” said Lori.
She said they want to continue to stay open and help people with special needs so those who want a job can be productive and be employed, giving them a full life.
Those who work there will tell you it’s not just a job.
“I love to hang out with my friends,” said Casey Torman.
One of her jobs is scooping out the dough and placing it on the baking sheets.
“After all the cookies are made for the day, I clean up, wash down the tables and trays,” she explained.
The employees bake eight signature flavors of gourmet cookies all year-round and have a special cookie of the month. Some of the flavors are cinnamon chip oatmeal, quadruple chocolate chip and Vermont maple. They also have some sugar-free cookies.
“My favorite is the sugar cookie,” Casey said.
Casey loves working in the kitchen, but when she isn’t baking cookies, she said she likes playing with her nephews, listening to gospel music and attending church. At home she makes cupcakes, cakes and pies. Even though Casey won’t ever be able to be on her own and will continue to have caregivers, having a job gives her independence and makes her feel good about what she does and that she is able to make others happy with cookies.
In the future, Casey’s Project hopes to develop a residential community where the participants can live and work in a safe and nurturing environment.
“We appreciate all the donations. Our goal is to sell as many cookies as we can. We want to get to the point where seeking disabled young adults can get a job with us,” Lori said.
The Casey Project is always looking for donations and for businesses to buy their cookies.