Olive Goil: Single Girl Cookies

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Did you know that we are in the midst of International Random Acts of Kindness Week? Started by the RAK Foundation, Random Acts of Kindness Week (RAKW) started on Feb. 10 and goes through Feb. 16, 2014. This week is a great opportunity to step out of your normal routine or comfort zone and attempt a new random act of kindness each day of the celebratory week.

One person who embodies the Random Acts of Kindness movement is Renee Heitmann, and she is doing it by using her family’s secret cookie recipe and sharing warm batches of cookies with local businesses in her Queens, N.Y. neighborhood.

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Ms. Heitmann has dubbed her grassroots mission, “Single Girl Cookies,” and it exemplifies the power and intention of one person in extending a gesture of kindness to those who live and work in her community.

Olive: What is “Single Girl Cookies” (SGC)?

Renee: The tagline reads “One Girl. One Mission. To spread kindness and smiles one cookie at a time.” That’s the over-simplistic mission statement, but what I really wanted to do with SGC (and still strive to do today) was foster a sense of community and get to know my neighbor as a person, and not for what they could do for me, which I find to be a direction our society is negatively headed in. By viewing others as a means to an end rather than as a person, we lose that basic human connection and become more and more detached. My mission is to get to the heart of the matter by connecting us all with a kind gesture, the intimacy of sharing food and loving my neighbor.

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Olive: We have so many social media outlets today. Yet, I agree that it is getting harder and harder to make meaningful connections. How long have you lived in Astoria, and how long have you been delivering your cookies to local businesses?

Renee: I’ve been in Astoria for four and a half years and have been delivering cookies for a little over a year, officially as Single Girl Cookies for one year. My anniversary was on January 17th!

Olive: Congratulations on your one-year anniversary! What have you learned since you started sharing your baked cookies?

Renee: Gosh, I have learned A LOT on my journey. I could probably talk all day about what I’ve learned. I’d say the biggest or most important lesson is to remember that we are all the same. There is always a way to relate to your fellow human being. You never know what someone is going through, so why not treat everyone with the same courtesy that you’d hope for? Carrying out the Single Girl Cookies mission helps me live the ultimate Golden Rule.

Olive: Tell us about some of the people you have met.

Renee: Because I don’t choose the places I visit every week, I meet a lot of interesting folks I wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to meet!  Most everyone is hardworking and just trying to carve out a happy and healthy life for themselves and their families. I visited all three firehouses in Astoria and they have been the nicest people I’ve met by far. Always welcoming and generous when I visit, and they always try to feed me when I come!

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Olive: Any strange responses or reactions? What (or who) has surprised you the most?

Renee: There is one fireman story that really illustrates what I’ve said before of not knowing a person’s story but that we all have a rich background in our own way, a story I told at TEDx Utica.  I was chit chatting with one of the firemen after picking up my plate and I asked him his story of how he became a fireman. He said he was slated to take the test but was in a terrible accident just before this and was in the hospital when the exam was being administered. He obviously couldn’t take it. This test comes around once every seven years, so he had to figure out what to do with his life now. He went back to school, got his Masters in special education, and taught Special Education middle school students for some years until the test came back around again. He took it this time, and passed. When I remarked on how different those two paths were, he replied, “They’re not really that different. Both are helping people, you know?”  What a story.

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Olive: That is an incredible story of conviction and tenacity. Two traits I absolutely love in a person. What (or who) has surprised you the most?

Renee: I get to see people at their most honest. I will put the business that I’m to visit next somewhere on social media, but if they don’t see that, they have no idea I’m coming. So it’s very telling what their reaction is when I first come in and explain why I’m there. Some are touched and really pleased that they were thought of by another business, others are skeptical and still don’t trust me even after I’ve told them everything. They still think there is a catch, like I’ll come back and ask for a donation or something. There is no catch, I promise you!

Olive: Any strange responses or reactions?

Renee: I’ve been asked by a few places if my cookies are poisonous, and been met with derision on a few occasions. The most surprising visit still has to be the firehouses.  I had previously been to the police precinct on Astoria Blvd. and they were … less than friendly. I was sent there by a man at Andrew and Frank’s Deli on 23rd Avenue who was downright misogynistic. Or just really rude to me all of my visits. I put those two together and figured the policemen would be sending me to a place with people just like them. I was so wrong! The firehouses have been the kindest, most open and welcoming people I’ve met along this journey. My take-away lesson to live instead of just “know” is not to judge a book by its cover. You never know someone’s story.

Olive: You are originally from upstate New York. What do you like most about living in New York City?

Renee: It sounds a little cliché, but you can’t beat the convenience of NYC. Growing up in a small town of 8,000 people, we have no public transportation. There’s no need for it. The nearest town is (and when I was growing up, Wal*Mart or anything resembling a place you could buy essentials) 15-20 miles away. After about 10pm, your only options for food are pizza, Chinese or something fried, and even that’s pushing it. I never take for granted how easy it is for me to get to work, make plans to go out with friends and not worry about getting home if I’ve had two cocktails (and that’s a “night out” for me), and not have to cook and still eat healthy and well if I don’t get home from work until 9:30 p.m. The downside is all of my family still lives upstate and we are incredibly close. But I know my purpose, cookies and beyond, call me to New York City and I’m loving the life I’m living!

Olive: Where do you hope this project will lead or take you? Any big goals for 2014?

Renee: I have a lot of aspirations, hopes and dreams for SGC.  Without getting too specific, I want it to become a kindness movement, a revolution. The more people that know of it, and my mission, will hopefully carry out kindness in their own worlds. And like ripples in a pond, if we all throw individual stones, pretty soon that will be all we will see. I do plan on starting a Manhattan chapter for 2014, and the day I tried, I got derailed by the weather!  So, I will make that journey next week and see where that takes me.

Olive: How long do you plan to deliver your cookies?

Renee: Indefinitely. I take my personal life one day at a time while planning a few months in advance, but always allowing for changes and flexibility. I will keep delivering my cookies as long as people will receive them.

Olive: Your cookie recipe is a family secret. But, do you have any advice for aspiring bakers?

Renee: Don’t be afraid to experiment. Read and educate yourself on what each ingredient does, so you have a better idea of how it all works together, then go nuts!

Olive: When you aren’t baking, what do you like to do?

Renee: When I’m not baking, I’m usually involved with music somehow, be it singing, listening or teaching. Music has always been a huge part of my life and I’m fortunate to have it be my life and how I make my living. I teach private voice lessons at a community music school called Turtle Bay Music School in Manhattan and also sing as a section leader at a church. I love performing and audition whenever possible, both for singing AND acting. I feel the same way about that as I do my cookies: my goal in both (in life, really) is to make a positive impact on others. And so, if I have a bigger stage, the more people I can impact!  That’s the theory, anyway!  I would still really like to be on Broadway, but it doesn’t matter so much where I perform as it is how I do it — with honesty and openness.

Olive: Thanks, Renee, for taking the time to speak with me and for spreading kindness with cookies! It’s just a wonderful, and dare I say, sweet thing you do! It’s very inspiring! Best of luck to you with all your endeavors going forward.

To learn more about Renee, please visit her blog at www.SingleGirlCookies.com.

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