Gopinath Swamynathan, known as Gopi, recognizes that people with disabilities are far more capable than is generally believed. “They can do a lot,” contends the co-owner of Hot Breads and Cakes at 70 Market St. By training and employing young adults with disabilities, Gopi practices what he preaches, and he invites the community to encourage the competent workers his efforts have produced—and to be compassionate.
“When autistic kids work the counter, some customers don’t understand,” Gopi said ruefully. “I would like them to be supportive, to help these kids.” As their boss, he takes responsibility, and is always on-site to supervise his staff, both in front and in the kitchen. “I don’t just leave them alone,” he said, pointing out that these employees are well trained and exceptionally faithful to his directions. “When I tell them how much sugar to use in a recipe, they will put in exactly what I specify.”
Gopi, who attended the culinary institute in his native Chennai, in southern India, then worked in the U.S. as the Hot Breads franchise’s corporate chef for six years, and has supervised some 20 to 25 interns with various disabilities at his workplace. Three are now on his 14-member staff, and he will add a fourth next month.
Most of the interns came to him via the Sunflower Bakery, a Gaithersburg-based program that “trains young adults with developmental and other cognitive disabilities through on-the-job training for employment in baking or related industries,” said Sara Portman Milner, Sunflower’s founder and director. Twenty weeks of classroom and other hands-on instruction precede three-month internships. In her letter nominating Gopi for recognition as a community leader, Milner praised him for “not only teaching them new skills, but also mentoring, supporting and empowering them.” The county’s Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee for Persons with Developmental Disabilities, a coalition of public and private agencies that provides a variety of mostly adult services to county residents with developmental disabilities, presented the award to Gopi on Oct. 20.
Padma Soundararajan, a customer who came into Hot Breads about four years ago, was instrumental in shaping Gopi’s perspective on disabilities. The Gaithersburg native, who is now Gopi’s wife, has cared for her brothers—Pavan has cerebral palsy and is completely disabled, and Sairam is mildly autistic—since the 2008 vehicle crash in India that killed their parents and two sisters. Padma guided Gopi in training Sairam; the Gaithersburg High School’s Bridge program alumnus, now 20, works the evening shift at Hot Breads, earning a living while attending Montgomery College’s Challenge Program. Gopi credits his positive experience with his brother-in-law for inspiring him to support other young adults with disabilities.
The skills Gopi’s interns-turned-employees acquire are life-changing. Among them is Carol Carter’s learning-disabled son Callum, 21, a Watkins Mill High School graduate who went through Thomas Edison High School of Technology’s restaurant management program as well as Sunflower. “Callum is thrilled, and I’m so happy he has the opportunity to work for such an incredible person in our own backyard,” she said. “Gopi is incredibly patient and has taught him a lot.” She is grateful that Gopi sees that “these kids have a lot to offer, that everyone has a place in society.”
Callum agreed. “This is a great place to work. My boss is amazing, awesome (and the pastries we make) are delicious to the highest regard,” he said.
Terri Ann Williams’ son Anthony, 19, is high-functioning on the autism spectrum; he graduated from Seneca Valley High School’s Learning and Academic Disabilities program in 2014, then trained at Sunflower. She appreciates Gopi’s insistence that Anthony further his independence by taking the bus to and from work. “Anthony is a people person, and likes making his own money,” she said.
Even before he met and married Padma, Gopi donated to local food banks, but she located and linked him up with Nourish Now, a food recovery organization in Rockville that provides food to more than 500 families in need as well as 50 partner nonprofits. Brett Meyers, the group’s executive director, said that Hot Breads donates unused fresh foods weekly, and for Thanksgiving, Gopi’s team volunteers to serve a meal for 150 at-risk youth and their families at a local community center. Meyers said Gopi is “one of the most generous people I have met since founding Nourish Now in 2011. He literally is always willing and excited to give back to his community. He is a person that can be counted on … the definition of a community leader.”
Gopi and his Hot Breads partner, Pallav Thakkar, are planning to open Hot Breads in Laurel and Frederick. And “half of the new stores’ employees,” Gopi promised, “will be these young people with disabilities.”