No ordinary bake sale: Humboldt teacher Erika Rybinski raises thousands for local charities

For Erika Rybinski, baking has never been just about the food you put on the table.

Instead, her baking projects are all about love, family, community, and being of service to anyone who needs a hand.

Rybinski spends busy workdays at Humboldt Collegiate Institute teaching band, choir, guitar, performing arts, drama and psychology.

Then she goes home and starts baking, filling her fridge and kitchen counter with cookies, bars, squares, loaves or a tray of her famous butter tarts to sell and raise money for local causes.

“I’ve always done a lot of baking, ever since I was young, and given it away as gifts,” said Rybinski. “And one day, a friend of mine suggested selling my baking.

“The way I’m wired, I thought, ‘Well, I can’t sell it for a profit.'” So I decided to sell the baking, but save up the proceeds and find a charitable cause to donate to.”

Since starting her charitable organization, Pastry and the Piano, in 2020, Rybinski has raised nearly $20,000 for causes dear to her heart.

“I am honestly surprised by how much things have grown,” said Rybinski. “I’m excited because, the way I see it, with more people supporting what I do, I can support more people. It equates to greater impact within our communities.

“Sometimes it’s late at night and I’m rolling dough and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I still have two dozen more things to bake.' But it really is worth it to me.”

Though some of the money raised has gone to support international projects — including buying school supplies for students in Ukraine, before the war began — most of her efforts have stayed local.

Along with supporting schools and youth programs in northeastern Saskatchewan, Rybinski also helps families who are going through a hard time.

“I am a small-town girl at heart, and I’ve seen how small-town people come together in times of tragedy or sorrow,” said Rybinski, who was born and raised in Kinistino, Sask. “So I feel compelled to keep that small-town mentality.

“It doesn’t mean that I try to be close-minded and only limit myself to local needs, but I understand that our outreach doesn’t have to be global. ... I can help people right here in my community.”

On any given day, Rybinski might be dressing up in a silly costume from the drama department to deliver a box of cookies to cheer up a co-worker going through a difficult few weeks. Or she could be raising thousands of dollars to help a recently-widowed neighbour get through the months ahead.

This fall, Rybinski also organized a pumpkin spice cookie fundraiser for James Smith Cree Nation to help as the community recovers from the tragic mass stabbing spree in early September.

“Kinistino is very close, geographically, to James Smith,” she said. “And I grew up with quite a few people from James Smith Cree Nation. A lot of students came to the school in Kinistino, and some of the individuals who were murdered, our family knew quite well. For example, the gentleman that lived in Weldon was the rink caretaker in Kinistino. So I felt compelled to help.

“And I know, as one person, I can’t fundraise colossal amounts of money, but my take on things is that every little bit counts.”

Rybinski says her motivation to be of service, however she can, is a family legacy — and her grandparents, Stella and William, were a particular inspiration.

In the 1960s, her grandparents founded the Haven of Hope home for intellectually disabled people in the Kinistino area, working hard to offer a “quality life in a family-like atmosphere” for residents. In quiet moments at the care home, Stella also found time to teach her granddaughter about baking.

“When I was a teenager, my grandma invited me to bake pies with her in the kitchen at the care home,” said Rybinski. “I was so excited — I really love my grandma, and we spent a lot of time together. She was very close to me. So I said, ‘Sure, I’ll make these pies with you,’ and I’m so grateful that I did.

“I learned a lot from her about how to make pastry and how to make pie filling, and I still use her tips and tricks today.”

Since Stella passed away earlier this year, Rybinski says Pastry and the Piano has been a way of keeping her grandmother’s legacy alive.

“Now, I feel even more compelled to pursue charitable work, because she spent her whole life taking care of other people,” said Rybinski.

Dustin Rybinski, Erica’s brother, says the whole family is delighted to see everything Erika has accomplished through her hard work and baking prowess. For as far back as he can remember, his little sister has always had a helping hand to lend.

“Whenever we have a family event, she’s late — and it’s because she’s overbooked herself, doing things for people,” he said. “It all comes from her heart, and I’m really proud of her for her charitable work. She’s inspiring and so generous with her time.”

Her friends and co-workers say the same.

“I think what she does is truly incredible,” said fellow teacher Chloe Monz. “But when you meet her and get to know her as a person, it’s no surprise. Everything she does, she does full-heartedly and with a lot of love. She brings zest and puts her whole heart into what she does.”

Libbie Smith, Rybinski’s former roommate and classmate in the music department at the University of Saskatchewan, says Rybinski has often talked over the years about her dream of opening a bakery and serving people in need.

Even in their university days, Rybinski was already using her baking to add a little joy to everyone’s week.

“In the music department, she would always bake something for the music students and leave it in the little cafeteria downstairs in the College of Ed,” said Smith, who happily taste-tested many of Rybinski’s Friday treats over the years. “She’d leave it there and she would have a piece of paper there, and if you wanted to take a treat, you had to write one good thing about your week. It was really, really nice.”

Looking back, Rybinski says those Friday baking projects were one of her inspirations for Pastry and the Piano — a reminder that baking can help nourish the soul, not just the body.

“Every week, the sheet of looseleaf would be filled up and the pail of treats would be empty,” she recalled.

Rybinski now continues the tradition with her own students every Friday, ushering in the weekend with a home-baked treat break. And while her students are eating their delicious snacks, they’re also learning important lessons on finding joy in ordinary moments, embracing your talents, loving your community and making your corner of the world a little better — one butter tart at a time.

“Sometimes I wonder: 'Is what I’m doing actually making a difference?'” Rybinski said. “It’s easy to make comparisons to other, larger organizations and feel like my work is so minuscule in comparison. But when I think about what I’m doing and the families I’ve been able to help, this is totally worth it.”

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix