For many children, birthday cakes seem like a given. Whether they have ornate floral designs, favorite Disney characters or simply names written in elegant icing, cakes celebrate important childhood milestones. However, for some people staying at the Barber Street location of the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, cakes weren’t always expected — until Susan LaCount came along.
LaCount, from Watkinsville, started decorating cakes for her daughter’s first birthday. When LaCount was growing up, her mom had attended cake-decorating classes and always made birthday cakes for her and her siblings. She wanted to do this for her daughter as well, so she decided to take classes at Michaels. Through the courses, she learned how to make icing, pipe borders and cover a cake with fondant out of the creamy confection. She also bought a book on gum paste and taught herself how to make flowers to decorate the cakes. To keep her skills sharp, she went a step further.
“I decided to ask [AAHS] if they would let me make cakes for them and sure, they were happy to let me do it,” LaCount said.
LaCount’s cake-making journey at AAHS began in 2002. Mary Rosser, shelter case manager at the AAHS, first met LaCount in 2017 when Rosser became the case manager for the shelter. Since the previous case manager had passed on LaCount’s information, Rosser took over the job of sending LaCount an email each month with the names and birthdays of every person at the shelter. Rosser also passes along what flavor of cake the person wants and, if they’re a child, who their favorite character is.
Shea Post, executive director of the AAHS, met LaCount in 2011 after starting her job at the shelter. Post noticed beautiful cakes arriving almost every week at the Barber Street facility.
“I asked about them and I heard about the wonderful cake lady who made birthday cakes for every single mom and child who was celebrating their birthday while staying with us,” Post said.
Before LaCount started her cake making mission, she learned that if the AAHS had extra money left at the end of the month, staff would go to Sam’s Club and buy a cake with everybody’s name written on it. LaCount thought everyone deserved to have a birthday cake.
LaCount custom designs every cake. She also makes everything from red velvet, buttercream and carrot cake to simple chocolate and vanilla. All the ingredients for the cakes are purchased out-of-pocket.
“For a while there it seemed like every boy in the shelter wanted Spider-Man [cakes],” LaCount said.
It’s not just children who get excited.
“I had this lady — she was probably in her 40s — and when I brought the cake in, she started to cry. ” LaCount said. “She said she had never in her life had a birthday cake. ”
When she’s making the cakes, LaCount said she usually thinks about how “even though they don’t have a permanent place to live, they can have a birthday cake to brighten their birthday.”
The shelter provides space for six families on-site. Generally, depending on how quickly people move in and out, over 100 children and parents stay at this shelter each year, Post said.
Although LaCount can’t recall exactly how many cakes she has baked in the last 17 years, she has a rough idea. At most, she said she has baked two or three cakes a month which amounts to about 600 cakes throughout the years.
Post said LaCount, whom she describes as “humble, quiet and unassuming,” doesn’t consider her work to be anything out of the ordinary.
“She’s in and out of the shelter to drop off cakes. It’s very low-key in how she does it,” Post said. “But it’s a very big deal for the families that she helps us celebrate.”
While LaCount may not think her work is anything special, Post said the works she does is an invaluable part of influencing the families’ experience at the shelter. Post said the AAHS tries to make the environment as homey and comfortable as possible. Most of the time kids will brag about having stayed at the shelter — instead of remember ing it as a difficult time, they leave with warm memories, Post said.
Even though the cakes mean a lot to the children, they also mean a lot to the mothers who “live for their children,” Rosser said. For LaCount to not only recognize the children, but also the mothers, “that’s amazing,” Rosser said.
After 17 years of baking, LaCount doesn’t think she will stop. “I don’t see any reason to stop. As long as I am able to, I will [continue baking cakes],” she said.