Nine-year-old's bake sales have raised $3,500 for Parkinson's research

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — When the pandemic hit in the spring, 9-year-old Zoe Bernard of La Mesa, Calif., started baking sweet treats with family members. But what started out as a fun way to pass the time during quarantine has become a one-girl mission to raise $10,000 for Parkinson’s disease research.

Through a series of weekend bake sales since July, the home-schooled fourth-grader has taken in nearly $3,500 through the sale of her homemade banana bread, peanut butter cookies and brownies. For a typical weekend sale, like the one in her driveway on Saturday morning, she’ll bake up to 25 loaves of banana bread, four to five pans of brownies and three batches of cookies.

One hundred% of proceeds benefit Team Fox, a research foundation set up by actor Michael J. Fox, who has the disease. So does Zoe’s grandfather, 75-year-old Joe Contogenis, who is the inspiration for her sales. Contogenis, who lives five doors down from Zoe’s family, can no longer run or play tennis the way he did before his diagnosis three years ago. But he comes to every one of Zoe’s bake sales and is often moved to tears by the generosity of Zoe’s customers.

“The idea for the fundraising came about two or three months ago. I thought, Grandpa has Parkinson’s and he doesn’t feel good every day. I thought ‘hey, what if I used the money I made for a good cause?’ At first I was going to donate half the proceeds to Team Fox and then I decided, whatever, I’m going to give 100% because that will help the most.”

What Zoe’s Bakery, as she’s calling her new enterprise, is known for is her doctored-up banana bread. Starting with a recipe she found in a Betty Crocker cookbook in March, she kept experimenting with the recipe week after week to find ways to make her bread sweeter. First she added cinnamon and nutmeg and a few other “secret ingredients,” and then she mixed in a variety of add-ins, such as chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, crumbled Oreo cookies and broken toffee bars.

“It took me about three or four months to get the recipe right. By the time I had it finished, my brother was asking me to make banana bread every night,” Zoe said.

Zoe’s methodical baking strategy is typical of her personality, according to her mom, Christine Eris. Because she’s always coming up with new ideas for projects and money-making ideas, they pulled her out of public school in February so they could home-school her and give her more self-directed education time.

“She’s definitely a little entrepreneur and has always been an out-of-the-box thinker,” Eris said. “We were cleaning out the garage and found a magic set and now she’s reading books on magic. She taught herself how to solve the Rubik’s Cube in a minute-and-a-half. She just learns and practices things until she perfects them.”

Zoe acquired her love for baking from her grandmothers. When she was 2 years old, she helped make oatmeal cookies and by age 4, she was regularly in the kitchen making cupcakes and muffins. Her father also ran a baked good shop in Point Loma called Treet that closed two years ago.

Eris said it costs about $40 for the baking supplies needed for a typical bake sale. She and Zoe usually go to the supermarket for bananas on Wednesdays and bake on Fridays. Zoe said she starts her baking days around 7:30 a.m. and finishes up between 3 or 4 p.m. She likes to do most of the work herself, but her mom mixes the dry ingredients to keep the assembly line moving. To break up the monotony in the kitchen, they turn on music and dance.

Zoe sells her treats for $1 to $2, or $12 for a full loaf of banana bread, though that is just a suggested donation. Eris said many customers give more because they know it’s for a good cause. Some neighbors have brought their own baked goods or ripe bananas to contribute to the project. One customer arrived with a $200 check and another with a $100 bill. But the most touching gift, Eris said, was when a 9-year-old girl from around the corner donated her life savings of $50.

“She handed it to Zoe and in her sweet little heart, she looked at Zoe and said, ‘I always wanted to do something good with my money, but I didn’t know how. I know now.’ That was such a beautiful moment of these two 9-year-old girls connecting for the greater good,” Eris said.

To give Zoe’s Bakery customers transparency about where their donations are going, Eris built a website, zoesbakery.org, which includes a direct link to Zoe’s fundraising page on the Team Fox website.

Zoe said her goal is to keep hosting sales until she reaches her $10,000 goal. Then she will either start over or she will find another cause to support. She also plans to launch her own children’s cooking channel on YouTube because she finds the process of baking so fun.

“I like the process so much,” she said. “It’s really fun to bake with my family, because they’re the ones who taught me.”

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune