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From prison to cakes: The bakery changing the lives of London's most disadvantaged women

Luminary Bakery is empowering some of the most disadvantaged women in London to overcome the barriers they face to finding work

montey/ luminary bakery

This is Montey, who discovered a "family" at the Luminary Bakery. Image: Luminary Bakery

Montey had just come out of prison when she discovered the bakery which changed her life.

Four years later, she is surrounded by a group of women who have been through similar hardships in their life and they empower each other towards a brighter future. And it all started with cakes.

Luminary Bakery provides training, employment and a community to some of the most disadvantaged women in London. It is a lifeline for women like Montey who are otherwise at risk of being left behind by society.

“I had a lot of barriers,” the 45-year-old says as she chats to The Big Issue over a cappuccino in the Camden bakery. She was referred to Luminary Bakery by a support worker four years ago.

“I was having social anxiety. I couldn’t travel on public transport. I would get here early to avoid the rush of the trains. But after a few weeks, it started to get better. I started to bond with the other girls.

“From the beginning, socialising with the other girls who had similar problems to me helped me overcome some of my issues. At the time I was looking to start my own cake baking business, but I wasn’t expecting what I found.”

Luminary Bakery supported more than 100 women last year, the vast majority of whom have experienced gender-based violence. Seven in 10 have faced homelessness, and a quarter have been involved in the criminal justice system.

The women are trained to bake to a professional standard, taught life skills and helped by a support worker to overcome barriers to employment. But perhaps most importantly, they find a community of women who empower each other.

Women laughing as they learn how to bake at the Luminary Bakery. Image: Luminary Bakery/ Anna Stathaki

“It is like being part of a family,” Montey says. “I have never had so much support in my life. There are different stages everyone is going through. I have met so many different people. Everyone knows that everyone has some kind of barrier and respect each other for that.”

One of the women she has connected with is Chenice, who was referred to Luminary Bakery two years ago by a family support worker after experiencing pressures as a young mother. She has a history of mental health struggles, having faced bullying as a teenager and being misdiagnosed with ADHD. She was 27 when doctors told her the symptoms were actually a result of trauma.

Chenice and her daughter at her Luminary Bakery graduation. Image: Supplied

“I realised after having my second child I was struggling with postnatal depression,” she says. “But I was working two jobs, partying at the weekends and living with my mum. I was distracting myself from the fact that I had postnatal depression. It didn’t hit me until two years later. That hormone imbalance can do that and having kids is difficult.

“If I had had that support [from Luminary] earlier, I wouldn’t have been in the situation that I was. But having that taught me that I went through that journey to be where I am today. If my daughters ever need support, I would want them to be helped by Luminary. It doesn’t treat you as if you have lots of barriers. They treat you like human beings, and society doesn’t always treat us like that.”

Luminary Bakery has just celebrated its 10th birthday and they hope to expand to many more women in the coming years. “We have a huge community of women who have been involved in different ways – as graduates, as volunteers, as staff members,” says Rosie Oglesby, its chief executive.

“We just have to take that magic and positive model and think about how we can take that to more women. The need is huge. And there are more and more women who could benefit from this support. We need to make sure other people can access us.”

Moments of joy at the Luminary Bakery. Image: Luminary Bakery

Luminary Bakery is doing just that. It is starting a relationship with Big Issue Recruit, a specialist recruitment service helping people who face barriers to getting into work. Job coaches will refer disadvantaged women who are not quite job-ready to take part in Luminary Bakery’s programme.

And on the other side, they will be able to refer women who are coming to the end of the programme and Big Issue Recruit will support them into work.

Montey is on her last assignment, completing her mental health level three, after four years with Luminary Bakery. “All those barriers are there but I’ve been taught how to overcome those barriers,” she says. “I’m a lot more confident. I am more empowered. It is believing in yourself.”

One of two Luminary Bakery spots. There is one in Camden and one in Stoke Newington. Image: Lizzie Bielicki

She is now focused on building her own little company Scents for Mind – making candles and wax melts to sell locally and promoting mental health awareness. “I don’t know what is more therapeutic than candles,” Montey says. “The aroma, the light, the whole atmosphere of them. It can change somebody’s mood.”

Chenice loved the first stage of the programme where they spent six months learning how to bake, and she was worried about the second part where the focus is more on building employability skills. But she learnt a huge amount about herself through the process.

She also has her own little business now called TastyTubz, selling sweets, and she hopes to build a brighter future for herself and her children. Neither woman would be where they are today without Luminary Bakery, and they want to continue their involvement for as long as they can. 

“I’m involved with everything,” Montey laughs. She has recently transformed the Stoke Newington bakery’s garden, making Luminary even more of a tranquil and safe space for other women. It helps, of course, that they serve “amazing cakes”. Montey’s favourite is the lemon and blueberry.

“It is like being part of a family.” These are some of the women who have been supported by Luminary Bakery. Image: Luminary Bakery

Chenice has “thousands of ideas” for the wellbeing sessions, which she attends each week giving her some respite from childcare. Both Montey and Chenice are on the advisory panel to help Luminary Bakery help more women.

“I want to give more to Luminary,” Chenice says. “They have changed my life. I have started my own little company. The way we live now, there is nothing set up for my kids, so if I could start something and it could expand eventually, it means I have something set up for my girls in the future. Luminary has helped me go through challenge after challenge.”

Montey says that she learnt to value herself and know her worth through her involvement with Luminary Bakery. It has taught her not only about how to overcome barriers in work but also in other parts of her life such as her relationships – she is now in a new relationship and feeling much happier. Both women are optimistic about their futures.

“It is so nice to see someone come out of a situation,” Chenice says. “With Luminary as a whole, it is lovely to see other women being empowered. It is not just about ourselves. I get empowered by seeing another woman fight a struggle and come out on top.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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