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Casey's Cookies in Largo trains and employs disabled adults

Published Dec. 3, 2012

LARGO — The girl in the hairnet and the white apron pushed her red and black shop stool to the edge of the table. She climbed on top of it and dug an ice cream scoop into a bowl of quadruple chocolate chip cookie dough. She plopped it on the scale and studied the number of ounces.

Not quite enough.

She pinched a piece of dough from the bowl and added it to the blob. She grinned. Just right.

"It's 2.5," she announced to the kitchen.

Casey Torman is 24. She was born with Goldenhar syndrome, a birth defect that deforms the face and spine and sometimes causes mental retardation. She does math at a third-grade level and reads at a fifth-grade level. She is nearly deaf, and her words sometimes jumble together. She is 4-feet-8 and has undergone nine surgeries to fix a twisted spine and severely dislocated hips. She's often in pain.

But Casey Torman has a job. A job she likes. For three hours, five days a week, she cleans tables, washes dishes and, most often, scoops dough for Casey's Cookies, a nonprofit bakery founded by her parents and named in her honor. It exists for a single reason: to train and employ disabled adults.

Her co-workers include a young man who is autistic and two young women who are developmentally delayed. They each make $7.67 an hour. Under the supervision of a kitchen manager, all of them share duties: mixing, scooping, packaging.

The idea for this place was born two years ago. Casey was about to graduate from Gibbs High School when her parents, Lori and Barry, began to worry about what she would do if something happened to them. For someone like Casey, finding and keeping a job is nearly impossible.

The Tormans were already entrepreneurs who ran their own company, Sticky Jewelry. They knew how to manage a website and deal with customers. They just needed to think of a business that would naturally provide work for people with disabilities. The couple prayed for an answer.

God gave it to them: cookies.

But their vision stretched beyond a secluded kitchen in a Largo strip mall. They imagined a residential community where the organization's employees could live together and support each other.

Casey's Cookies was inundated with positive press. Local TV stations ran features. National media, including PBS and CNN, told their story. Best of all, people liked the cookies.

"People love them," said James Clark, part owner of T and Me Tea Company in Gulfport. "People ask for them by name."

Clark, whose daughter has Down syndrome, has been a loyal customer since he first heard the Tormans' plan.

"They have a dedication to do something with a higher purpose," he said. "It's inspiring."

But the ultimate vision still seems far from reality. They can afford only to employ four disabled employees and two supervisors, none of whom works full time.

Their site offers a dozen cookies for $14.95. To break even, the bakery needs to ship an average of 23 dozen per day. It sells about half that now.

The Tormans keep the organization alive with what they make from Sticky Jewelry, where both work full time.

"It's been a struggle," Lori said. "But we're not going to give up yet. We believe in it."

They believe in it because of people like Charissa Morgan and her brother, Mo. She is 25 and developmentally delayed. He is 26 and autistic.

Charissa's favorite job is mixing the dough, and she's good at it. She knows just how much of every ingredient is called for in each recipe. She is precise.

Mo's favorite job is packaging. "Repetition," he explained. He wears his baseball cap backward and prefers not to speak when he's working. Mo is the kitchen's DJ, and when the Southern gospel plays, he wants to hear it.

Casey likes to scoop. Certainly because she's good at it, but also because the scooping station faces the rest of the kitchen. Her audience.

Unlike Charissa and Mo, Casey talks while she works. She cracks jokes about a duck and a pig and tells stories about her plans to get married when she turns 50. All of them have heard her say those things dozens of times before, but in the kitchen, no one seems to mind.

Everyone at Casey's Cookies, she says, is her best friend.

Times researchers Natalie A. Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

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