Jennifer Schlese graduated in 1998 with a diploma in youth care work from what was then Mount Royal College. Staying in the field for 15 years, Schlese loved working with families, kids and having an impact on people’s lives.
“It filled me up,” she says. “It really did.”
But Schlese’s life began to change in August 2017, when she was driving through Rogers Pass, B.C.
Just as Schlese reached the peak of the pass, something happened.
“It was like an explosion in my head,” Schlese recalls. “I blacked out. I couldn’t see.”
That moment led to a change in Schlese’s career, with her grandma’s recipe providing the inspiration for Cookies by Jen.
The life-altering brain injury
Travelling past Revelstoke, B.C., Schlese had her 11-year-old son, Cole, and two dogs in the car. When they reached the peak height of the pass, Schlese experienced a blinding explosion in her head.
With no cell reception to call for help, Schlese had to inch her way down the mountain, frequently stopping to pull over. She, Cole and their companions found help in Golden, B.C. four hours later.
Help came in the form of a very kind nurse named Linda Amico. With Schlese, her son and the dogs trapped in Golden, Amico offered to drive them home to Airdrie, Alta.
Once home, Schlese suffered symptoms of vertigo, imbalance and depression. “It is like you are wearing somebody else's prescription glasses,” she says.
She was diagnosed with a brain injury, resulting from a non-impact concussion. “It was like my life was taken away from me,” she says. “I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t do laundry. I couldn’t do dishes.”
Because of her symptoms, Schlese knew her career in youth-care work was over. “Right then and there I had to stop,” she says.
But, as Schlese points out, “When one door closes, a window always opens.” And Schlese’s window was her grandma’s Spritzgeback cookie recipe.
The cookie adventure begins
By November 2017, some of Schlese’s vertigo symptoms had gone away, but she was still battling depression.
To fight off the blues, Schlese dug out her grandma’s old Christmas cookie recipe, threw on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and started baking.
Soon after, the community began to react.
“You should start selling these cookies,” Schlese kept hearing. And before long people were lining up at her door, eager to taste this German-style cookie.
As demand kept growing, Schlese’s daughter, Kelsie, urged her to get on social media. “Well, you need to be on Facebook,” she said. “This is the 20th Century, Mom. Get with it.”
The resulting Cookies by Jen page exploded, giving Schlese both a boost in confidence and in her business.
She set up booths at Calgary and Airdrie school markets. For Christmas 2018, she made it to her biggest market yet, The Crossfield Farmers Market.
The market circuit has been a positive experience for Schlese in other ways as well. She formed a new friendship with Cora Thiessen, owner of Cora's Cosy Book Corner.
Thiessen remembers meeting Schlese at the Heart of the Community market in Airdrie.
“We got talking, and we are both very upbeat in terms of drawing people in…and trying to connect with people,” Thiessen says.
Thiessen describes how she and her son coordinated a book fundraiser for the neonatal intensive care unit at the Rockyview Hospital.
When Thiessen asked Cookies by Jen for a donation, Schlese jumped at the chance.
“She donated 33 snack packs for the bundles,” Thiessen says. “She’s just a super thoughtful person with her business, and I think that is what brings abundance to her.”
But as Schlese grows her business, some of the challenges of selling at farmers’ markets are presented.
“When you sell a food product it is a bit trickier,” she says. “You need to be certified. You need to take your Alberta Health certification and food safety course and everything costs money.”
Connecting with customers
Selling her cookies at the schools and farmers’ markets have led to some amazing things happening.
“You get to interact and meet so many different people and so many families in almost the same way as when I was a youth-care worker,” she says.
Cheryl Schreiber, a customer of Cookies by Jen, shares how her then five-year-old daughter, Aubrie, enjoyed her first authentic German Spritzgeback.
“Aubrie is autistic and non-verbal. She has a lot of sensory issues and food is one of the biggest ones. She has a very, very select diet.”
Schreiber explains how Aubrie only consumes about 10 to 15 items in total, and that is including both foods and liquids.
Schreiber bought the maple-infused Spritzgeback cookies and had them sitting on a table. “[Aubrie] came over all on her own and was playing with it and ended up eating it, and then she came back and got another one.”
It was an amazing feeling for Schreiber to see her daughter try something new — and really enjoy it.
Dreams for the future
When asked about the future of Cookies by Jen, Schlese talks about her dreams.
“It would be really nice to win the lottery and start a bakery,” she says. “You go to your bakery, turn on some music, bake your cookies there, sell your cookies there, have a little coffee shop.”
Thiessen agrees that the youth-care worker in Schlese combined with her baking abilities would make for a great outreach-style cafe.
“I could see her having a community place where everyone feels like they are welcome; nobody feels like they have to leave after they finish their coffee.”
Cookies by Jen is really heating up. And although Schlese feels the door has closed on her career as a youth-care worker, she has found new relationships and families to connect with through Cookies by Jen.
“The youth-care worker in me hasn't left,” she says. “She is just doing cookies. She is meeting families and spreading joy through the cookies this time.”
- By Kaeli Campbell