Zoe Bernard loves her grandpa. He lives a few houses down from her home in Mt. Helix and her relationship with him has always been strong, but three years ago, Joe Contogenis, a Marine veteran, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“He would always take me and play soccer with me, we always went to get banana splits and, my favorite thing, we would always go down the slide in the pool and he would go down head first and then catch me when I got down to the bottom.
“At the very beginning he started not feeling well, headaches, then he had hip surgery. After that, he had a stroke and started developing a tremor, went through brain surgery. That just makes me really sad,” said Zoe. “He’s never feeling well, he gets lightheaded every day, he can barely walk and it’s just hard.”
Zoe is 9 years old and in fourth grade. She decided to take the time while in quarantine to make a difference and it all started with banana bread.
“I wanted to see if I could find something that I could actually make that would be good enough to sell and raise some money to help find a cure,” she said. “So, I decided on banana bread to find a cure for Parkinson’s.”
At the beginning of quarantine, Zoe started making banana bread for her brother almost every night and he loved it and started giving it to other people.
“I kept changing up the recipe, thinking it had too much nutmeg, too much salt and other things,” Zoe said. “Then I added lots of different things like Oreos, Reese’s Pieces and a lot of little treats that could make it sweeter. It took me about three months, but I perfected the recipe and I wanted to start selling it to start raising money. Now people are ordering whole loafs of bread through my website.”
After her third bake sale on July 18, Zoe raised $2,500, with a goal of $10,000 going straight to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease research.
She was asked to join Team Fox, and this past week before she started her third bake sale, she received a box from the foundation with a customized banner, stickers, flyers and information packets on Parkinson’s disease to help support her community event.
Zoe said the community response has been exciting and overwhelming. She bakes around 30 loaves of bread, brownies, cookies and even her neighbors are contributing baked items to sell.
“People would drive up and say, ‘Two cookies please.’ I’d give them the cookies and they’d give me a $100 bill,” she said. “One guy came by, bought a lot of things and give $200. Even our gardener who works for us all the time gave us $300.”
Her mother, Tina Contogenis, said that moved her dad and all the family.
“He handed Zoe $100, and we all started crying,” said Contogenis. “He’s such a hard worker, six sons and they all come and work so hard. He handed the $100 because he loves my dad. He kept apologizing for not having more to give, but then in a couple of days he showed up at my dad’s house and gave her another $200. My dad said all of this has restored his faith in humanity.”
Zoe said she plans on continuing the bake sales through quarantine and will see how it continues once it is lifted and she starts school again.
“As long as we are kind of stuck at home, really not spending a lot of time outside of our house, this is a really good pastime,” said Contogenis. “We appreciate all of the support. If people can’t make it in person, they can do so online and if they can’t donate money, just send a note of encouragement to her. She reads through everything. Spreading the word about Parkinson’s is, well, it’s hard to watch somebody go through it.”
Bernard said that being only 9 years old does not mean you can’t make a difference in people’s lives.
“Find what your favorite thing to do is that’s fun for you, then find a cause and you can help change the world in lots of ways,” she said.
Zoe Bernard’s next bake sale is scheduled for Aug. 1 on the 3900 block of Agua Dulce Boulevard in Mt. Helix.
To find out more visit www.zoesbakery.org.