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Breast cancer survivor 'pays it forward' with cookies

Breast cancer survivor 'pays it forward' with cookies

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WATERLOO – Donna O’Brien keeps her recipes closely guarded secrets.

What is public knowledge is the success of Bambinos — O’Brien’s delectable, melt-in-your-mouth sandwich sugar cookie topped with a cloud of swirled frosting and dusted with sanding sugar sprinkles. Bambino is Italian for “baby,” reflecting both the cookie’s petite size and O’Brien’s Italian heritage.

“They’re meant to be upscale indulgences somewhere between cookies and cupcakes,” said O’Brien. “The flavor profile is unique — the frosting is sweet and fluffy.”

Bambinos are baked, decorated and packaged in her Waterloo kitchen and sold at Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Ankeny Hy-Vee Food Stores.

The public can sample — and purchase — Bambinos at Crossroads Hy-Vee in Waterloo, and Cedar Falls Hy-Vee from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday throughout February.

And it’s “the cookie stack that gives back.” A portion of Bambinos’ sales is donated to the Beyond Pink Team, a nonprofit organization providing support and education for breast cancer patients in the Cedar Valley and surrounding communities and advocating for breast cancer research in Washington, D.C.

O’Brien, a breast cancer survivor, said she is “paying it forward.”

“Last month she donated $3,500 to the Beyond Pink Team. She gives nearly 20% of her proceeds to the Beyond Pink Team,” said Gabbi DeWitt, Beyond Pink member in charge of media and publicity.

O’Brien was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in November 2008. She underwent a double mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery in 2009.

“I was in fear of my life,” she said, “but I had amazing support. My sister, Lorie, (Heuthorst) came over every day to help, and my husband, Joe, went with me to every chemo treatment. I had a deep bench of people there for me and helping me.”

She distracted herself by baking cookies. Her niece served as taste-tester while O’Brien perfected her recipes. As each batch of cookies was pulled from the oven, O’Brien began to formulate a plan in her head to turn her cookies into a business that also could help others.

While undergoing chemotherapy, O’Brien noticed Beyond Pink Team volunteers assisting other breast cancer patients. Curious, she asked about the organization and was impressed by its mission, which includes providing grants to patients in need of financial and emotional support, transportation, child care and more.

“I contacted the Beyond Pink Team and told them ‘you people are amazing, what you’re doing is amazing.’ I wanted to donate cookies, and they took me up on the offer. I understand what cancer patients are going through, and it makes sense for me to support Beyond Pink’s efforts,” said O’Brien, who has been cancer-free for about 11 years.

She began making Bambinos by the dozens for Beyond Pink fundraisers and special events. It wasn’t long before the cookies began popping up on dessert tables at weddings, baby showers, birthday and anniversary parties and community fundraisers and events. She also ships cookies across the U.S. as Christmas gifts each year for one customer.

Serendipitously, O’Brien met a Hy-Vee bakery manager who sampled and loved Bambinos. That led O’Brien to a successful meeting two years ago at Hy-Vee’s corporate headquarters in Des Moines.

Last October, she began fulfilling Bambinos orders for the Cedar Falls Hy-Vee. The cookies were launched at Waterloo’s Crossroads store and in Ankeny in November.

“I worked at Hy-Vee in high school and college, so it feels like I’m coming full circle. The corporation and the bakery managers are kind people who are interested in giving back to the community,” O’Brien said.

About 150 dozen Bambinos are baked and decorated each week for three Hy-Vee stores, in addition to dozens of other batches for special orders. Heuthorst spends her days baking cookies in the two ovens in O’Brien’s (licensed) kitchen while O’Brien is at her full-time job as customer relations manager at Martin Bros. in Cedar Falls.

“When I get home after work, I put on an apron and start decorating cookies. We go until 10 or 11 at night,” said O’Brien, who can pipe swirls on five dozen cookies in less than 15 minutes.

A Beyond Pink Team volunteer packs the cookies in clear plastic containers, and O’Brien’s husband and other family members regularly pitch in. O’Brien’s friend and colleague Angela Dark developed the Bambinos logo and marketing materials and manages a Facebook page that features “Faces of Hope” profiles of breast cancer survivors. Orders can be placed on Facebook, too.

Now O’Brien is positioned to take Bambinos “to the next level.” Her goal is to make sure the Beyond Pink Team is “set for life. I feel like this is my mission. This is my passion.”

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