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Rising to the occasion: Occupational therapy student promotes wellness through baking

  • June 22, 2022
Dorris says incorporating creativity and education through therapeutic baking has helped her serve others and herself as a soon-to-be occupational therapist.
Written by: Jessica Jernigan
Media contact: Adam Pope

Juju bread streamJulie Anne “JuJu” Dorris says incorporating creativity and education through therapeutic baking has helped her serve others and herself as a soon-to-be occupational therapist. Photography: Steve WoodAt the start of the pandemic, many people became hobbyists — picking up crochet needles, reading gardening books or rolling out dough to ease the anxieties brought on by quarantining. For Julie Anne “JuJu” Dorris, the art of breadmaking crept into her life, influencing her creativity in support of her own well-being. 

Dorris, now a second-year occupational therapy master’s student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, began her program in 2020 online, as did many others across the world. Having settled into a new apartment and new school, and with no connections that an in-person experience could offer, she became restless.

“I craved something to feed my creativity and need for socialization,” Dorris said. “Like many, I resorted to food — I fed my passion by developing the skill of bread-baking.”

After a few failed attempts, Dorris found a rhythm and a real knack for baking. She slowly began to branch out and gift her new neighbors with loaves of sourdough and cinnamon rolls, which quickly spread to friends and to friends of friends.

Soon after, word got around and the requests began rolling in. She started to receive bags of flour and orders from locals in the community for her creations.

“Slowly, food gave me the means to support myself while simultaneously connecting with others,” Dorris said. “People would come to my kitchen and relax while I kneaded bread. How special an outlet to offer others a delicious snack while doing what naturally feeds my soul!”

Mixing occupational therapy and breadmaking

“I was studying and making bread at the same time, and I realized how related the occupational therapy curriculum and breadmaking were to each other. It’s how I started to learn the framework of the practice,” Dorris said.

The methodical nature of breadmaking is mirrored in many occupational therapy practices. It incorporates range of motion in the neck, shoulders, arms and elbows. For example, she shares that a client experiencing a joint injury or rheumatoid arthritis may benefit from kneading dough, as it can support the joint integrity or even loosen some of the stiffness. 

There are cognitive benefits too. Figuring out the exact right amount of time to let bread dough rise is more difficult than you would expect. It involves trial and error, flexible thinking and the ability to adapt.

“In occupational therapy, we see many different cognitive disorders that can affect a person’s ability to reason through a certain sequence. Breadmaking is an activity that involves a lot of repetition. Consistent practice can help train the brain to develop patterns and self-correct errors,” Dorris explained.

Dorris admits there is a deep sense of satisfaction when it comes to baking bread, not just its consumption — watching the dough rise, slicing into a loaf to share with loved ones and even teaching others how to bake.

“Breadmaking has allowed me to be more mindful and intentional in everything I do,” Dorris said. “When I teach people how to bake, I see that light spark in them. Baking can introduce the concept of a meaningful lifestyle — it teaches patience.” 

After witnessing the positive effects breadmaking had on Dorris and its connection to occupational therapy, Gavin Jenkins, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy, encouraged her to conduct a research study analyzing how the practice can impact mental well-being.

“Occupational therapy remains the science of healing by occupation. In our literature, there is a recognition that breadmaking can make people happier, support creativity and give people a sense of achievement,” Jenkins said. “JuJu’s creativity lent itself to support her own well-being as she began to teach herself breadmaking. Whether intentional or by chance, she began to participate in an activity that will ultimately support her development as an occupational therapist.”

Baking bread, an activity Dorris turned to in a crisis that so many of us were trying to navigate in our own way, has served as a source of optimism and joy.

Jenkins has used breadmaking as an example in his training and practice as well. Occupational therapy stemmed from the arts and crafts movement and the moral treatment of movement, he says. In turn, it has helped facilitate the holistic point of view by actively involving the patients into the treatment.

“You can achieve therapeutic goals with well-known therapy products; but you can also achieve the same results with bread dough, and only one of these smells and tastes amazing when cooked,” Jenkins said.

The study

The smell of freshly baked sourdough loaves, focaccia and cinnamon rolls flooded the first floor of the School of Health Professions building throughout February and March. Occupational therapy students could be seen filtering in and out of the “study room” between classes wearing aprons, feeding their sourdough starters, kneading loaves and sharing their latest baking creations with each other.

The study itself possesses an air of flexibility and looseness. If one student cannot come in and check on their loaf, another student will step in for them.

“It’s become a sense of comfort for people,” Dorris said. “If they’re having a bad day, they come in and roll out dough, rather than being on their phone or doing something else. It’s a way for them to check out and focus their energy into one thing.”

Study participant and occupational therapy student CJ Shell shares that it has significantly impacted his mental health and how he approaches his studies. 

“When my loaf came out of the oven the first time, I felt an immediate sense of satisfaction, like, ‘wow, I did that,’” Shell said. “It’s also given me new tools to incorporate into my own occupational therapy practices.”

Three ingredients in promoting optimism

Bread is meant to be shared. That is why Dorris, outside of her responsibilities as a student, started her own breadmaking business “Bread by JuJu.” Every loaf is wrapped in clear plastic and tied with a ribbon. Attached is a note featuring a doodle of a field mouse declaring, “Enjoy every last crumb.”

Next semester, Dorris will continue to incorporate her newfound passion into her field coursework at Horizons School and United Ability by conducting therapeutic baking courses at both locations.

“I’ve seen firsthand how breadmaking can affect people, and I want to share that experience with my future patients. The process creates opportunities for socialization, encourages intrapersonal skills, supports sustainability, promotes motor skills, expands sensory exploration and so much more,” Dorris said. “I want to stay working in my community and give back. Once licensed, I plan to use therapeutic baking as a modality for providing occupational therapy services for underserved populations.”

Baking bread, an activity Dorris turned to in a crisis that so many of us were trying to navigate in our own way, has served as a source of optimism and joy.

“I carried a lot of doubt with myself before I modeled the first study session,” Dorris said. “But after, it was the most validated I’ve ever felt. I was honestly proud. My work had paid off, and I saw how happy everyone was. They were smiling ear to ear and shoveling bread in their mouths. I can’t think of anything better to be a part of.”

To learn more about our occupational therapy programs, click here