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Company begins Project Smile to help during coronavirus

The legendary children’s television host Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”

With the coronavirus pandemic affecting thousands of people around the country, there are many helpers around — especially the medical professionals and first responders combating the virus on the front lines.

There are also plenty of other people going above and beyond to help their respective communities. Shawn Oke, owner of Albemarle Sweet Shop, is one of them.

As a former Albemarle fire chief, Oke is not one to sit idly by when a crisis is happening. He wants to help as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But during this period of uncertainty, it’s been tough for him to figure out how he could best help others.

“I’ve just been wrestling with ‘what can I do?’ I want to do something to make things better,” he said. “That’s the fire chief in me.”

After cycling through different ideas, Oke came up with the simple but effective concept of donating cookies to organizations and businesses “whose staff need a smile right now because of everything they are going through related to Covid-19.”

Around three weeks ago, he began Project Smile by donating several hundred cookies to staff at Atrium Health Stanly and the Stanly County Health Department.

Oke was immediately inspired. After seeing pictures on social media and hearing from people that the cookies made their day, “I’m like, ‘well this is what I need to do,’ ” he said.

Shawn Oke, former Albemarle fire chief, adds chocolate filling to one of his pies at the Albemarle Sweet Shop.

He began advertising about Project Smile on Facebook and also teamed up with the Stanly County Chamber of Commerce to handle the logistics to coordinating with businesses. Thus far, around 120 businesses have been nominated and cookies have been donated to about a dozen of them.

“It is our goal to provide a cookie and smile to everyone nominated as every person listed is vital to our communities’ success in beating Covid-19,” the shop wrote in a recent Facebook post.

The shop has distributed cookies to, among others, Stanly Manor, Albemarle High School, Quality Daycare in Oakboro and Clayton Homes in Richfield. Project Smile is also not limited to the confines of Stanly County. Oke recently donated cookies to the ER Department at Novant Health in Mint Hill.

“Everybody is important right now,” Oke stressed. “It’s not that any one group is more important than anybody else because so many people are doing so much above and beyond right now.”

Project Smile is just now starting to really get ramped up, with Oke projecting that next week will likely be busier than in the past. He’s produced around 700 cookies over the last three days and wants to get to the point where he can bake 200 to 300 per day. He said his ideal goal would be to find a way to produce 1,000 cookies each week.

But it’s not easy since he’s the only person working at the shop. Oke made the decision Tuesday to furlough six employees and then Wednesday night he made the hard decision to close the bakery to the public. People can still place orders through Facebook or email (albemarlesweetshop@yahoo.com) and customers can pick them up between 8 a.m. and noon Monday through Friday. The sweet shop is also still delivering cookies to the Corner Supermarket.

Though the lack of personal interaction for someone as personable as Oke has been tough, he sticks to his decisions because the safety of employees and customers is paramount right now.

“It all boils down to the No. 1 priority and that is people and the safety of people,” Oke said, adding that it would “emotionally destroy him” if someone were to contract the virus after entering the shop.

Even though it’s a one-man shop, Oke is still able to produce most of the sweets the shop is known for, with one exception.

“I can’t decorate cakes, so we don’t have any cakes available or our big clown cookies,” he said.

“The rewards for me of knowing that I made someone’s day are so much greater than any dollar that the business could bring in,” he added.

Though things are fluid and changing all the time during the past few weeks, Oke hopes he can continue to operate the shop and plans to eventually hire back his employees. But his biggest worry right now is for all the other people in the community.

Oke, who celebrated 20 years of operating the Sweet Shop April 1, is hopeful that good and some smiles will be helpful.

“Our world right now is a big puzzle and every piece makes the picture,” he said. “If I can put my positive piece in that puzzle and 100 other people put a positive piece in that puzzle, look at that picture that we can create.”

Contact reporter Chris Miller at 704-982-2122.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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