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May 22, 2018 1:22 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

South Fork Bakery Founder Honored As 'Woman of Distinction'

Shirley Ruch with a box of cookies made at the South Fork Bakery, which she founded. KYRIL BROMLEY
May 22, 2018 3:34 PM

Forgive Shirley Ruch for having a cluttered office—she’s a very busy woman.On a rainy Thursday afternoon, she was moving a few things around in her office in Sag Harbor—among them a box of cookies from the South Fork Bakery, which she founded, owns and operates. There were also stacks of books on communicating and connecting with children who have learning disabilities, as well as toys to help them feel comfortable and ready to learn.

Nearby, in a therapy room, was a nice red-and-white plaque that reads “Woman of Distinction.”

Ms. Ruch was given that plaque by State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle on May 1 at a New York Senate Ceremony in Albany. She said that she was surprised and “taken aback” when she heard about being chosen for the honor this year. She admitted to being unfamiliar with it but quickly added, “I will pay attention to it from now on.”

In a press release, Mr. LaValle explained what earned Ms. Ruch the award: After witnessing the frustration that parents go through when trying to find employment for their adult children with special needs, Ms. Ruch decided to provide training and employment by founding the South Fork Bakery, using her professional expertise to help employees, drawn from the community of adults with special needs, to develop social skills and other knowledge.

“Shirley Ruch dedicated her career to improving the quality of life for special needs students and their families,” Mr. LaValle said in the release.

Ms. Ruch has been a Sag Harbor resident since 1981. Before that, she lived in Ohio and earned a bachelor’s degree from Miami University and a master’s degree from Ohio State in communications with a minor in special education.

Before college, Ms. Ruch did volunteer work with special needs children in a small preschool after thinking about going into education or nursing as a future career. She would eventually transition to teaching in the public school system in a multi-handicapped classroom. By the time she moved to New York, she noticed a stark difference in the focus on education between the two states.

“Ohio was much more progressive than New York when I came here,” Ms. Ruch said. “I was working in a multi-handicapped classroom, and there was inclusion happening. We called it ‘mainstreaming’ back then—but, here, that was not happening. Most of the special needs kids were in the BOCES program, and they were going to a separate school. That was not the case in Ohio. So I was very much in favor of inclusion.”

Though she started her practice at home, she’s been working in her Sag Harbor office for 28 years. Ms. Ruch specializes in working with young children with learning and developmental disabilities, including attention deficit disorder and autism. She’s worked with clients ranging from age 2 to 18 years, encouraging parent involvement in therapy sessions.

Ms. Ruch explained that once she and her client begin to form a rapport and she understands what the situation is, she uses the interests of the child to get him or her invested in learning how to better articulate through spoken language.

This form of learning, which she described as “play therapy,” can make use of books, games and even toys. Ms. Ruch also encourages parents to bring things from home that allow the child to see therapy as a form of fun. The point, she said, is for a child to learn to establish a “joint connection” with others, including herself.

“I do have one student who’s 5, but functioning more like a 2- or 3-year-old, who is difficult to engage,” Ms. Ruch said. “He may come over and smack the table, so I smack the table back. He may walk around and make some sounds, then I get in his proximity and make those sounds back. So we can turn anything into a back-and-forth activity.”

Ms. Ruch strongly encourages involvement from the parents or guardians both at home and during sessions at her office, though she does understand if some parents have trouble “following through” on sessions due to their work schedule or life situation. She has offered training for parents in how to facilitate joint attention with younger and older children.

“I would tell parents to go with their intuition,” Ms. Ruch said. “Many times parents suspect there may be something challenging for their child, and they don’t seek help because other people around them say, ‘Oh, he’s a boy. He’s gonna grow out of it,’ or ‘She’s just immature for her age.’ If they have that sense that something is bothering them and something’s not progressing the way they want it to, go get a consultation from somebody. The earlier they get services, the better the outcome.”

Another method of therapy that Ms. Ruch has used is baking and cooking, which she described as a “very motivating” activity and great for helping her clients learn about following instructions and working cooperatively. Since she also deals with clients over the long term, Ms. Ruch said she often would hear parents worry about what their children will do for work after graduating high school.

“Many of my clients were graduating from high school at 21 with not a lot of opportunities for work,” she said. “That is a big fear of most parents.”

With that in mind, she started the South Fork Bakery in May 2016, using her own money, to provide employment training and experience to adults with special needs.

Since the bakery’s start two years ago with only six staffers, she now has 15 employees baking, packing and learning about business at Scoville Hall in Amagansett seasonally, with more than 50 stores in New York State selling the bakery’s cookies.

Ms. Ruch said that those interested in working come to the bakery for an hour or two to try out different jobs and see what they like and what they’re best at. She has never turned away anyone looking for work and is applying for 501(c)3 status to keep the bakery financially stable and be able to expand in the future.

“Many new people have come to me who’ve heard about the bakery who have wanted their son or daughter to work there,” she said. “People are hungry for meaningful activities for their adult child to do. I really feel that some of the employees may be able to move from this employment to other jobs as well—and I encourage that. My employees work at a different pace than some other employees might, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a job and that they can’t work.”

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outstanding work, thank you!
By peace13 (1), Bridgehampton on May 26, 18 8:11 PM
Shirley deserves the Woman of Distinction award! She is incredibly gifted and talented with special needs child and adults. Her compassion is always present and her ability and want to help teach parents and siblings is beyond what one can imagine! Congratulations Shirley-We are blessed to have you on the East End and for South Fork Bakery!
By GRICE (4), WaterMill on May 30, 18 9:19 AM