What’s the strangest cake request Karen Nichols has ever received? It would have to be the one from a nine-year-old boy who wanted “a giant chocolate-chip cookie with a school bus with Hannah Montana driving it, with a rainbow overhead,” Nichols says with a chuckle. “And that was just the beginning.” Nichols is the founder and president of Bake a Wish, a volunteer group that provides birthday cakes to shelters throughout Austin.
“Most people have never thought of a kid not receiving a birthday cake,” Nichols says, “and when people realize it, they want to help.” The group’s first cake, several years ago, went to a youth at a local homeless shelter on his 19th birthday. “We got a note from him afterwards,” Nichols remembers, “saying that this was the first birthday cake he’d ever gotten in his whole life. We’ve had several stories like that.” While the group may have started as a way to get cakes to low-income children, it has since expanded to provide cheer to the orphaned, disabled, elderly or otherwise in need. “The shelters we’re serving are all nonprofits, and with people’s budgets being cut, we’re really hoping to fill that gap.”
Bake a Wish relies on a local network of over 100 volunteers who take requests from more than 30 local agencies and shelters. The organization is 100 percent volunteer staffed, has no paid positions or funding and no centralized commercial kitchen—all of its volunteers bake and decorate at home. The process is simple: when a cake request comes in, a volunteer signs up for the task online. Children at the shelters have asked for superhero cakes, Elmo cupcakes and the like, while the elderly have had such requests as a Valentine’s Day cupcake party with a decorating lesson from Bake a Wish. “We really let the kids get specific with their requests,” says Nichols. “They’ve never gotten to express their desires or wishes, so it can be a new thing for them. We deliver them their dream cake.”
Bake a Wish volunteers currently make about 75 cakes a month. Some of the group’s volunteers are professional pastry chefs who make elaborate dessert creations, while others are simply home bakers hoping to help. The group has applied for recognition as a nonprofit, but despite the growth, Nichols says that the core of the project will always remain the same. “It’s really more than cake. It’s letting them know that they’re special, they’re valued, that people care about them.” —Terrence Henry