Aunt Dolores’ celebration of unity with community combines history and sweet treats.
As President Joe Biden signed legislation establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday in the United States, Los Angeles-based Sheen Educational Foundation’s Sheenway School and Culture Center prepared to mark the occasion with the launch of its mobile bakery as part of the organization’s 50th anniversary.
Co-founder Dolores Sheen, Aunt Dolores to all, is taking the lead on educating the students at her school and the members of the larger community in South L.A. about the significance of this day and the intricate yet interconnected history of the city and its many cultures. And what better way to do that than by breaking bread together. Her recipe for spreading a message of unity? Delicious baked goods, a bakery on wheels, and empowering others with insights on the area’s vast and significant cultural diversity.
A Legacy of Learning
But this isn’t the first time Aunt Dolores chose to rise to the occasion. It’s simply what she has been doing all her life—all 83 years of it and going strong. In the process, she has amassed a wealth of knowledge and expertise afforded by some fantastic opportunities, including being recognized by two presidents for her commitment to community, being enlisted by legendary Brazilian philosopher/educator Paulo Freire to his think tank, being invited to contribute to the Commission on Human Rights in 2001 and addressing the United Nations Roundtable in Geneva, Switzerland. And that is just a sprinkling of the long list of accomplishments earned by the Howard University alumna who continues the exemplary work of her father, the late Herbert A. Sheen, M.D., who believed that the benefits of total education are the most effective ally to the underserved.
With his vision as her motivation, Aunt Dolores has developed a teaching and learning experience for small and focused groups, critical thinking, and overall development of knowledge and skills not dictated by the requirements of a standardized test.
“Our students are STEAMERs, we use science, technology, engineering, art, math, entrepreneurship and respect as the groundwork for teaching everything, and that involves culture, history and current events,” she shares. The school has never received government funding and operates as a private non-profit grassroots organization solely driven by donations from well-wishers. “We have 26 teachers for ten full-time students and 30 part-time afterschool students. We keep our day school enrollment ten and under. There is school from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and children get two snacks and a hot lunch,” she shares.
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Strengthening Community During Crisis
“But because of COVID, we haven’t had campus classes and we won’t until all ages of students can be vaccinated,” Aunt Dolores says. “They have families at home, a lot of them have multiple families living in one residence, so until that happens with the immediate testing, we won’t have learning on campus.”
The pandemic created a lot of obstacles, and amid those complications, a mobile bakery was suggested, not just for baking but also selling, like the famed Helms Bakery trucks of yore. “This is our 50th-anniversary jamboree, and we wanted to have some events that were memorable during this year,” she shares.
“The students have been involved with an entrepreneurial business bakery since 1981, but we had the idea to have a Helms prototype to make access in the community more convenient for people who don’t have transportation. There is also a lack of quality food in our community.”
The most recognized product is the pumpkin bread. It was the star of their first appearance on Juneteenth when their chow wagon (aka the delivery truck) headed to its first pop-up at the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southeast Division.
As she points out, the mobile bakery is a classroom in a way and part of the unique curriculum allows children to engage their entrepreneurial skills; business planning, financial management, sales, marketing, presentation and interacting with customers, while sharing historical facts about their communities such as the Black cowboys and the Mexican vaqueros.
Pumpkin bread and fruit cobblers were sold, depending on the size, for $6-$10. There were also bone appetite dog biscuits. Everything is made at the school and monies raised will help fund school uniforms and supplies.
Sheenway Goes to Ghana
“The mobile bakery will do its rounds once every other week at a location because schoolwork has to come first, but their three-year plan is to be able to do different routes. They figure in a year at least, they should be able to do that,” shares Aunt Dolores.
“They are hoping to have two trucks by the end and have their own LLC too. What’s impressive is we are in the hood. We are homegrown and community-based. One of our graduates went to community college but is now at Yale as an art major, so there’s a lot of good in the hood. We are going to spread the word.”
And that goes across borders too with the Sheenway magic extending to a school in Ghana, West Africa that Aunt Dolores founded 26 years ago while tracing her paternal Ewe roots in the South Tongu District of the Volta Region. The sister establishment is situated on a gifted 51-acre site in her village of Sasekope.
It is possibly the first private school in the country, aside from any Christian or other mission-led schools. “I travel there every year…eventually I would like to have a prototype for how they can have their own bakery, studio, import-export trade company, theater…that’s my dream. I’ve got to do that before I leave here,” Aunt Dolores shares.
The school has 172 students ranging from preschool to middle school and 70 teachers, operating on a bit of a different ratio from the L.A. location. “I’m trying to raise money to develop an EduTech lab that I designed that both continents would have that we can use to document and develop [a] more intrinsic international curriculum. With virtual, it’s amazing what we can do,” she says. But for now, she and her students are excited with the attention and positive response the mobile bakery has garnered.
At an intimate press event before the Juneteenth launch, Aunt Dolores shared her good spirits and priceless stories with guests, some of whom were Sheenway alumnus, including Tommy and Shonte Dudley who now have a catering business, Dudley Do Rights BBQ LLC, and partnered to provide take-home dinners at the event.
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Attendees included board members and community leaders, many of whom have known Aunt Dolores for years and share a long-term rapport with her and the school. “The community knows we are here because we want to be. Thanks to my father’s vision, no one can misuse our standing in the community. Our stewardship is we belong with the community. We are for, of and with the community. We want to stress unity in the word ‘community.’”