Santa Rosa woman leads a birthday cake brigade for needy kids

Tracy Donovan, the local ambassador for Cake4Kids, leads a team of dozens of volunteer bakers to make specialized cakes for homeless and at-risk kids.|

North Bay Spirit Award: Tracy Donovan leads a team of dozens of volunteer bakers to make treats that brighten the lives of children

You could say it all started with an Easy-Bake Oven.

As a kid, Tracy Donovan spent hours with her two sisters whisking together miniature cakes and cookies to then devour.

“Who knew you could bake with a light bulb?” she remembered, laughing.

Fast-forward 50 years. Donovan, a policy analyst with the federal Department of Health and Human Services, now bakes full-sized cakes and cupcakes in her sleek, two-oven kitchen in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood. A devoted cook, she has upgraded from a light bulb-powered children’s toy to a Blue Star gas oven and Bosch electric oven.

These days, she gives away her thoughtfully themed cakes. Each one is presented to a wide-eyed child in honor of their birthday.

Donovan heads up the Sonoma and Napa county chapters of Cake4Kids, a nationwide nonprofit that marshals the talents of an army of home bakers to make customized cakes for children experiencing tough times. They may be in foster care or living in homeless shelters or other difficult situations where a simple cake with their name on it is a luxury beyond their imagination.

Donovan launched the local chapter in 2020, during the worst of the pandemic, and sought out social service agencies to identify children who would benefit from a sweet birthday greeting. Through NextDoor, a county volunteer listing service and word-of-mouth, she pulled in 150 volunteers and financial supporters, half of them active bakers.

Now there are 14 agencies serving children and youth that partner with Cake4Kids in Sonoma County, and Donovan is always open to more.

The children identified to receive cakes remain anonymous. Bakers never meet them and have just a few basic details to work with: a first name, an age and a few particulars like favorite flavors, their theme preferences and any dietary restrictions. It’s up to the bakers to buy the ingredients and come up with a design. It demands imagination and a lot of time spent trolling Instagram.

In two years, Donovan and her team of volunteers have baked 480 cakes and other sweet treats for underserved children and at-risk youth.

“We want them to be homemade, to make the child feel like somebody really cared about them,” Donovan said. “When I bake, I’m excited to bake for somebody. I feel like I’m pouring my love into that batter. ... Especially for your birthday. I want you to feel you’re so special, and we love you so much. For this program, we’re shoring up these kids with these cakes.”

The cakes are elaborately decorated, bear the child’s name and are presented in a beautiful bakery box with a Cake4Kids label.

It’s important kids know it’s not just any cake, but one baked especially for them.

For her work spreading smiles and helping young people feel extra special on their birthdays, Donovan is December’s North Bay Spirit Award winner. A joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award recognizes outstanding volunteers who go all in for a cause, often identifying a need in the community and finding a way to fill it.

“When you talk to her, you see how much passion and dedication she has for the organization and in really lifting the Sonoma County chapter up and wanting to expand and grow it,” said Capri Quattrocchi, 19, who has been a volunteer baker for two years.

Quattrocchi, a senior at Montgomery High when she joined, said Donovan works hard to create community among the bakers by holding get-togethers where they can meet and trade ideas and treats.

“You can just see the time and work she puts in to make our chapter so wonderful,” the young baker said.

Early heartache led to social work

Donovan has spent nearly 30 years working in social services. For many years the Pittsburgh native worked “in the trenches” in a succession of posts and agencies to help people in need.

“In the beginning of my career, I was a juvenile probation officer. I wrote child profiles for adoptions. I was a medical case manager for a Medicaid HMO,” she said.

After high school she traveled, uncertain what to do with her life. She lived in Hawaii for awhile and wound up in Los Angeles.

“I was volunteering on First Street, giving out food to the homeless. That’s when I figured out my purpose in life,” she said. “It’s social work. It’s what I’m good at.”

She went back home to go to school and earned her master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. But her skills and instinct for helping others were instilled during her childhood.

Donovan was the oldest of three girls, and both of her sisters had serious health issues. From the age of 12, when her mother went back to work, Donovan served as a hands-on caregiver for her sisters. Her youngest sister was born with spina bifida, a serious birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. She was paralyzed from the waist down.

Her other sister, Tabitha, developed leukemia. It fell to Donovan to care for Tabitha after school as well as during several years of treatments. She died when Donovan was still in high school.

“I would come home from school and I would have to make dinner because my mother would work until 7 or 8 o’clock at night,” Donovan recalled.

Watching her sisters suffer left emotional scars. Donovan initially thought of going into the medical field but realized it touched too deep a nerve.

“I think I had post-traumatic stress,” Donovan said. “I witnessed a lot of kids dying in the hospital while my sister was getting treatment. Even my other sister, some of her friends had passed away. Our family just linked up with all these other families with special needs. That becomes all you know.”

The experience left her with a deep empathy.

“My purpose in life is to be a social worker,” she said. “That’s all I really know is how to help people and how to solve problems.”

Her way of helping kids

Donovan has no children of her own. After suffering several miscarriages, including one that almost cost her her life, she and her husband, Quinn Donovan, a civil engineer, let go of the dream of having kids and moved to California in 2004. She took a job working with veterans with spinal cord injuries, a post she at first was hesitant to take because it meant returning to a hospital setting.

“It was the best thing I ever did for myself. I was able to go back to all that trauma and face it and deal with it. I loved that job,” she said.

For the past 15 years, Donovan has worked for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Family in San Francisco. She has worked in various capacities for the agency, including facilitating temporary assistance for needy families. Now she’s a policy analyst for the Office of Child Support Enforcement, and although she likes her desk work, Cake4Kids is a chance to do hands-on work that makes a difference.

She came across Cake4Kids while scouting out service projects for the Junior League of Napa/Sonoma, of which she’s a member. When she discovered that neighboring counties had Cake4Kids chapters but no one to head up a chapter in Sonoma County, she volunteered, then took on Napa County as well.

All referrals go through the central office of Cake4Kids, which sends out notices to volunteers in the appropriate chapter. The first volunteer to reply gets the commission. Volunteers can choose as many or as few “bakes” as they want. Emergency bakers are on hand to fill in at the last minute if a request goes unclaimed.

Donovan said bakers try hard to make the cake magical, but the requests can be challenging. Her toughest was the little girl who wanted a “makeup cake.” It went unclaimed so Donovan swooped in, got some other bakers to bake it and then she headed to Instagram for decorating ideas.

Fondant is a cake baker’s best friend, and Donovan did her best to sculpt lipsticks and brushes, eyelashes and compacts in the shape of a face to make a cake good enough to delight any budding glamour girl.

Cakes for all occasions

What began as a mission to make birthday cakes for foster kids and at-risk youth has expanded to serve a broader range of needs. Volunteer bakers make treats for all kinds of special events for kids, from graduations to Halloween parties.

While she doesn’t meet the young people who receive her cakes, Donovan sometimes hears back through social agencies about how a particular child responded to their cake. She recalls hearing of a 16-year-old boy who had lived with his family in their car his entire life.

“The first time he got a cake was through Cake4Kids. Can you imagine?” she said in a voice laced with sadness.

Donovan is charged with raising at least $2,500 a year for the Cake4Kids organization. To meet that goal, she threw a gingerbread house contest. She sold 30 kits at $40 each, and contestants had 48 hours to decorate them and bring them to Montgomery Village, where they were set up last Sunday and judged for originality.

Among the judges Donovan recruited was Melissa Yanc of Healdsburg’s Quail and Condor Bakery who was The Food Network’s 2019 Holiday Baking Champion.

“I never imagined that someone couldn’t even get a birthday cake,” lamented Yanc, the mother of two toddlers. But it’s understandable, she said, given how expensive cakes have become.

“They’re not quite as accessible anymore, let alone ones that are like what we do, being organic and locally sourced,” Yanc said. She intends to join the Cake4 Kids baking team after Christmas.

Donovan’s core administrative team is tiny and includes mom Cookie Moore and friend Paula Simon who does social media. Some business have stepped forward with support, including Keith Giusto Bakery Supply of Petaluma which has provided sugar and flour for volunteers and Nancy’s Fancies in Santa Rosa, which offers supplies and classes for bakers.

Donovan said it may seem like a small gesture but there is so much more baked into each cake.

“This is about making sure they feel special and building that self-worth and that self-esteem through that cake,” she said. “So it’s not just a cake. It’s all these other things. And that is building a really strong community when you do something like that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or

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