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It began when Scott McKenzie was furloughed from his job at Juniata College, a local liberal arts school. With his newfound free time, the father of two vowed to acquire an untapped skill every week.
Baking homemade chocolate chip cookies was at the top of his list. The 58-year-old man had never made them from scratch. He decided it was time.
“I made an absolute mess of the kitchen, but the cookies were actually pretty good,” he said.
Proud of his small achievement, McKenzie shared a photo of his homemade creation on Facebook. That’s when Jeremy Uhrich, 42, a fellow Huntingdon dad and a longtime friend of McKenzie’s, challenged him to a cookie competition.
“He said, ‘Great job, but I bet mine are better than yours,’ ” said McKenzie, adding that Uhrich, a middle school English teacher, baked cookies with his two sons that same day. “Right away, it was on like Donkey Kong. We decided to have a bake-off.”
The initial plan was to let essential workers — from a hospital, fire department or grocery store — judge whose cookies were superior, but given the pandemic, they decided it would be too difficult to coordinate several sampling sessions. Instead, they went straight to Huntingdon Borough Mayor David Wessels to pick the winner, and they decided to deliver the rest of the cookies to essential workers after the victor was named.
One of Uhrich’s former students and a basketball player on the team he coached asked if she could enter the competition, so the three challengers brought their individual chocolate chip cookies to the mayor’s office for him to settle the great baked goods battle.
Each contender’s cookie creation was critically analyzed and inspected for texture, taste and presentation, and the contest was broadcast over Facebook Live for the whole community to witness. In the end, neither dad won: Uhrich’s former student, Rachel Kyle, 18, took home the title.
McKenzie and Uhrich delivered the remaining several dozen batches of cookies to essential workers, who were touched and delighted by the sweet gesture. It gave the dads an idea: “We came out of it saying, ‘A little bit of sugar and some flour can go a long way. We should do it again,’ ” said Uhrich.
They created a Facebook group called “Cookies for Caregivers,” thinking maybe a handful of people in the Huntingdon community might volunteer to bake treats for essential workers on a regular basis. Within a few days, the group had over 100 members, all eager to participate.
McKenzie and Uhrich hatched a plan: Every week, they would select four volunteers to each bake roughly four dozen cookies. While Uhrich is responsible for corresponding with bakers, McKenzie coordinates with a handful of recipients, to ensure they are comfortable with receiving the baked goods.
Then, bakers drop off the cookies at Uhrich’s home, and one day a week, the two men load up a car and hand deliver them to various locations across Huntingdon, which is home to roughly 7,000 people.
Over the past eight months, the pair — now known around the small town as “the cookie guys” — and their 100 volunteer bakers have made more than 15,500 cookies.
“We blinked twice and we’re now 35 weeks in, and we have delivered just slightly below 1,300 dozen cookies,” said McKenzie, who has recently resumed working as the associate athletic director of the local college but continues to spearhead Cookies for Caregivers alongside Uhrich.
“We’ve had chocolate chip, sugar, butterscotch, snickerdoodle, cupcakes, fudge, peanut butter blossoms,” said Uhrich. “As far as cookies go, you name it, we’ve delivered it.”
The town’s hospital, Penn Highlands Huntingdon, is a weekly recipient of the treats. The hospital’s president, Joe Myers, vouched for the genuine impact the cookie deliveries have had on staff.
“They absolutely love it,” he said. “We deliver them to every department within our hospital so that each and every person working has the opportunity to get the cookies and know the community is there supporting them and thinking of them.”
McKenzie and Uhrich also deliver regularly to various other institutions across town that have remained open to serve the community throughout the pandemic, including a local newspaper.
Becky Weikert Bard, 40, is the managing editor of the Daily News in Huntingdon. Her newsroom has been a Cookies for Caregivers recipient multiple times, and she has seen firsthand the joy the treats bring her staff. So, she decided to bake, too.
“My oldest son is 9 and enjoys baking. It’s something the two of us do together,” said Weikert Bard, adding that they have baked four times for Cookies for Caregivers. Her mother has also started baking for the initiative.
Stephanie Willis, 36, bakes with her 12-year-old daughter, and they have made several batches of peanut butter blossoms, oatmeal cookies, chocolate chip cookies and banana bread muffins for Cookies for Caregivers.
Although McKenzie and Uhrich continue to lead Cookies for Caregivers, they credit its success to the bakers.
“Jeremy and I may have been the catalyst for how this began, but it’s really our bakers that sustain the effort,” said McKenzie.
“This is a direct reflection of our community as a whole, and a credit to them,” echoed Uhrich. “This community is small in size, but huge in heart.”
Beyond continuing to facilitate Cookies for Caregivers, the two dads are now looking beyond Huntingdon, hoping to encourage other communities to create their own version of it.
“My father has Stage 4 lung cancer, and he felt motivated to start his own group,” said Uhrich, explaining that his parents have started a Cookies for Caregivers in Hershey, Pa. “They are now 20 weeks deep, and they feel as excited about what they’re doing as we do.”
“We’ve delivered to over 120 places so far — fire departments, schools, post offices,” said Jerry Uhrich, 71. “For my wife and I, it warms our hearts. We get more out of it than the recipients.”
Like his son, he has no plans of slowing down: “If we can just keep this going during these tough times, it gives everybody a little relief and you see smiles instead of bickering and divisiveness.”
A Cookies for Caregivers has also started in Arizona, and several people have inquired from other states about opening up their own chapters.
The best part about Cookies for Caregivers is seeing how recipients react, McKenzie and Uhrich said.
“Half the people we deliver cookies to are in tears. There is so much raw emotion surrounding everything we’re going through — be it the political environment, the pandemic environment, the employment environment. Giving somebody a little sweet piece of normalcy has pulled a lot of folks through these times,” said McKenzie.
Plus, Uhrich added, “Who is going to turn down a cookie?”