When he’s baking a cake, 18-year-old Jeremy Fredricks tends to stick to the recipes on the back of the Duncan Hines box. He usually makes a simple chocolate or vanilla—it’s through the decorating process that he lets his creativity flow. Earlier this year he made an ocean-themed cake using blue food dye, Goldfish, and Skittles to depict a beach.
“I wanted to make a cake that I would want to get for my birthday,” he says. “Plus, who can say no to all that candy?”
Fredricks, a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, is an executive board member of Birthday Cakes 4 Free Maryland (BC4F), a nonprofit that bakes, decorates and distributes cakes to financially and socially disadvantaged children and seniors in Montgomery County and Northwest D.C. every month. Since 2015, more than 750 volunteers—primarily students at local middle and high schools—have baked more than 7,000 cakes to donate to total strangers.
“I think a birthday cake is more symbolic than anything else,” says co-founder Allison Wachen, 21, a senior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “Birthdays are one of the few times that you are celebrating you. It shows that even through the hard times, the community cares about you, and here is the way we are showing it.”
Baking birthday cakes had always been a family tradition for Wachen and her younger brother, Robert, now 19 and a sophomore at Harvard University. They loved watching TLC’s Cake Boss, then trying to create less challenging treats of their own. They’d bake for any occasion—Halloween, Valentine’s Day—and especially for their father’s birthday. (His favorite is a vanilla cake with buttercream frosting.) They made so many cakes that some of them went from the oven into the freezer.
When Allison was a student at Churchill, she read about BC4F—then a national organization—in a magazine, and she and Robert decided to start a chapter in Montgomery County. (The national organization is now defunct, and Birthday Cakes 4 Free Maryland is the lone remaining entity.) “At that point, it was just the two of us and a few friends,” she says. “We were doing around 10 cakes a month, one or two charities. We didn’t have big expectations.”
But word of their endeavor spread, and soon people they didn’t even know were volunteering. As Robert was preparing to take over as president in 2018, he was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. He stayed involved throughout his treatment, and other members of BC4F stepped up to help him. His cancer is now in remission. The support he received made him “even more grateful” for the volunteers he worked with, he says.
The organization’s popularity among teenagers is helped by the fact that high school students can earn Student Service Learning (SSL) hours by contributing, but the calm that baking provides and the knowledge that they are brightening a child’s birthday seem to be common themes among the volunteers.
“It’s definitely relaxing,” says Fredricks, who bakes about four cakes per month. “I think it’s also a nice stress reliever because you have to spend all your time focusing on the cake and making sure that you’re using the right amount of ingredients. So if there’s something that’s worrying you, like school or the college application process, it gives you the opportunity to step back and focus on something else.”
Like most of the teen bakers, Fredricks usually prepares his cakes at home. (Before the pandemic, volunteers would occasionally get together to bake at someone’s house.) He was pleased with the way the ocean cake turned out, but his creations haven’t all been perfect. “I’ve burnt cakes, which is not fun,” he says. “I’ve dropped a cake—it was all decorated and everything, and on the way from my house to the car it slipped. You put all this time into it, to see it fall is not a fun feeling.”
These days, the organization distributes about 150 cakes per month to roughly 20 nonprofits, including Shepherd’s Table in Silver Spring and area Boys & Girls Clubs. Fredricks often delivers the cakes himself, piling up to 15 in the back of his dad’s Jeep. “I definitely feel like I am more cautious driving to the place with the cakes in the back than when I’m driving home,” he says.
More often than not, the volunteers aren’t around when the recipients of the cakes get to blow out the candles and dig in. But the impact those cakes make is clear, says Bob Stowers, senior branch director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington/Jelleff Recreation Center. His Georgetown chapter and the one in Germantown have been receiving cakes for years. “The kids are thrilled every time they get cakes,” Stowers says. “We do a general big party and highlight the kids whose birthdays are in the month. They’re always asking, ‘When’s the next cake day?’ ”
Anjali Gallacher, a junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, got into baking by watching The Great British Baking Show. Now a member of BC4F’s executive board, she learned cake decorating at a Michaels crafts store, and has since started her own confectionery business. For BC4F, she once made a cake in the shape of Spider-Man’s head. “Coming up with a design and executing it is something that gives me a lot of joy,” she says. “A birthday cake has always been a staple of birthday celebrations, so having something to make a child feel special and feel like they’re loved, I think that’s a magical thing.”