Student Shem Russell is one of a new generation of food heroes, nurtured by Sheffield’s pioneering Freeman College.
Part of the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust, it specialises in vocational courses designed to stimulate and fulfil young people with special learning needs.
An artisan bakery is a key part of the college’s Academy of Makers – a centre of excellence in traditional crafts currently being developed in the old Butcher Works off Arundel Street.
And the two years that Shem has spent as a student at the residential college have changed his life.
“I’m good at ICT but I think I’ve found my niche in the bakery – which was a really big surprise,” says the 18-year-old, who has dyspraxia, Asberger’s syndrome and bipolar disorder.
“It helps me a great deal. Some mornings I’m really stressed but I take it out on the bread and get a really good loaf!
“It’s made me into a different person and now I’d like to become a baker when I finish college next year.”
Students at Freeman College follow a vocational programme designed around their needs, talents and aspirations.
Shem, 18, is following a three-year ‘orientation’ course – and baking has emerged as a pivotal focus for him.
With help, direction and teaching from the college’s baker Lee Gilbert, Shem has developed a love of baking and is showing real talent.
“As well as learning patience and teamworking skills, he has learned to make and bake artisan bread,” says Lee. “In the future this will strengthen his employability and living skills as well as boosting his overall health and wellbeing for the rest of his life.”
He adds: “The college believes that all people have the potential for positive change and to shape their own future. This helps our students grow and become healthier.”
Sheffield-born Lee has been a baker all his life. For 20 years he was a partner in a bakery and delicatessen in Lincolnshire but when he sold up he was keen to use his skills to help others.
Freeman College offered the answer but it didn’t work out as Lee expected.
“I was taken on as commercial bakery manager but I discovered that I worked really well with the students. So I became a teacher and I love it!”
He treats his classes as sessions of work experience and the students respond.
“It’s very popular. We’ve found that they engage well in the bakery, while the therapeutic side of mixing and moulding bread keeps them focused – and, of course, they have some really tasty bread to take away with them,” he says.
For many students, the college is the door to an independent life and a number have gone on to find jobs in catering at the end of their three-year course.
The traditional breads and pastries they produce are already proving popular in outlets such as the Showroom cinema and Fusion award-winning organic café – another Freeman College enterprise based at the Butcher Works.
Plans are in the pipeline to develop a bakery sales area within the café. It should be ready later this year, when fresh bread will be available for sale daily.
Meanwhile, members of the public can get a taste of the bakery’s produce during Sheffield Food Festival from July 4-10.
Fresh bread, cakes and pastries will be on sale from a stall in the yard of the Butcher Works.
The team will also have a pitch in the Peace Gardens as part of the producers’ market at weekends.
Lee is a keen supporter of the Food Festival: “It’s a great chance to bring together our multicultural food producers and show what we have to offer, as well as highlighting the importance of the food we eat and where it comes from,” he says.