A shooting took his sight, smell and taste. Yet now this Bridgeport native bakes for a living.

Photo of Leeanne Griffin
Willy Marrero poses with a tray of freshly baked scones at Tea with Tracy in Seymour, Conn. Feb. 19, 2021. Marrero, who is blind, works as a baker at the tea shop.

Willy Marrero poses with a tray of freshly baked scones at Tea with Tracy in Seymour, Conn. Feb. 19, 2021. Marrero, who is blind, works as a baker at the tea shop.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

The last thing Willy Marrero remembers seeing is a gun in his face.

He told his assailant he didn’t want any trouble. He’d had words with the man the night before, but on that June morning seven years ago in Bridgeport, he said he wanted to put it to rest and shook his hand.

Marrero walked away from the handshake, and called a friend to come pick him up. He heard footsteps behind him. As he turned, he felt a bullet hit his chest before the gunman unloaded nine more bullets. Five hit Marrero in the face. The man aimed at his head, intending to “finish me,” Marrero believes.

But Marrero threw his arm up to protect himself and took the bullet in his limb, ultimately saving his life. One bullet blew out his right eye, and another destroyed nerves behind his eyes. At 29 years old, Marrero’s world went dark.

The shooting on June 5, 2014 left Marrero completely blind, and he also lost his sense of taste and smell. Marrero’s life changed, sending him down a new path that led to him excelling in a job few would think possible — Marrero has reinvented himself working as a baker, navigating a culinary career without three of his senses.

Marrero can’t watch a cake rise in the oven, or enjoy the aroma of fresh banana bread as it cools. He can’t taste any sweet creations for quality assurance. But since 2015, he’s been baking for Tea with Tracy, a tearoom and restaurant with locations in Seymour and Oxford.

“We don’t look at it as ‘We have a blind baker here,’ ” Marrero said. “It’s pretty cool that I am blind, and can do it. I’m Willy, and I just happen to be blind.”

“How do you feel about baking?”

The shooting left him hospitalized in intensive care for a week, followed by a period of rehabilitation. As he recovered, he was eager to get back to a more normal pace. He spent several weeks at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass., relearning life skills like cooking and shaving. He learned how to use a cane, and how to work an iPhone with new accessibility functions.

He finished the program on the one-year anniversary of the day he nearly died.

“I took that as the foundation of what I was doing, and I ran with it,” he said. “I said ‘OK, I know how to do the basics again, so let’s get back to work now. How do I get back to work?’ ”

He connected with a state agency, which helped him land an interview at Tea with Tracy. Through a miscommunication, owners Tracy and Joel Tenpenny were told Marrero was “seeing impaired,” not fully blind.

The tearoom job opening was a server position. Thinking he wouldn’t qualify for the job, Marrero thanked them at the end of their chat, shook their hands and got up to leave.

Joel Tenpenny asked him why he was leaving. Marrero said he knew he couldn’t be a server, with his limitations.

“How do you feel about baking?” Joel asked.

“Well, I don’t know. I’ve never done it,” Marrero replied.

Joel said he loved his positive attitude, and wanted to give him a chance.

“I don't know how good I'll be at this baking stuff,” Marrero told him. “One thing I can promise you is that I'll be there every day, and I'll be ready to work hard.”

“He wanted to work,” Tracy said. “Joel and I looked at each other, like ‘What can we have him do?’ We needed a baker ... and really, he ran with it. He does his job; he does it well.”

The tearoom kitchen is small, which helps Marrero maneuver easily. He uses exact measurements for the recipes. Ingredients are kept in the same consistent spots. Containers of spices and flavorings like cinnamon or vanilla have “bump dots” on the bottle or jar, so he knows by touch that he has the correct one.

He relies on timers to alert him when something has finished baking. He wears gloves up to his elbows, and a long-sleeved shirt or chef’s jacket so he doesn’t burn himself sliding items in and out of the oven.

When he first started the job, the Tenpennys recorded step-by-step audio readings of the recipes for him. But now, he has six or seven recipes completely memorized, after baking them regularly for years. He’s proficient with banana bread, carrot cake, sponge cake, red velvet cake, brownies and scones.

“It became second nature,” he said. “So that’s why I joke that I can do this with my eyes closed.”

“Treat me normal”

When Marrero started his job, Joel Tenpenny asked him what he could do for him, as a supervisor.

“Treat me normal,” Marrero requested. He asked his bosses to correct him if he got something wrong, or to tell him if he accidentally spills flour on the floor.

“That’s what he's always done, and that made me feel good because I've gotten better because of that,” Marrero said.

Marrero laughs about a mix-up one past October, when he confused a container of apple cider for milk and poured it into dry ingredients intended for a scone recipe.

“I think I’ve made maybe three big mistakes in five and a half years,” he said. “I think I’m doing pretty good.”

In his tenure at the bakery, he said he’s developed a close relationship with the Tenpennys, who treat him like family. To them, he’s just Willy.

“I’m a person first,” he said. “I’m not my disability. It doesn’t determine who I am.”

“I think there are times that we forget he’s blind,” Tracy said. “When he’s here, he moves freely, because he knows where everything is ... We just see Willy, our friend and our baker.”

Life is rich for Marrero outside of work, as well. He speaks lovingly about his fiancée, Shannon, who was his girlfriend of nine months when the shooting happened. She’s refused to leave his side since. Their wedding date was pushed back because of the pandemic, but they plan to marry at the end of July.

He’s also a father of two daughters, aged 14 and 10, and it’s important to him that he serves as a living example of determination.

“I teach my daughters: Don't ever make excuses in life. Don't let nothing stop you. But the best way to teach anything is by showing them,” he said.

“I want him to change his life”

Marrero’s attacker was caught six hours after the shooting. He was later convicted of assault in the first degree, with intent to cause serious physical injury, and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Marrero didn’t testify as a victim, as he was attending the Carroll school in Massachusetts at the time. But he says he’s angry the man wasn’t convicted on attempted murder charges, and that the prison sentence wasn’t longer.

He still lives with chronic head pain as a result of the physical trauma, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I have nightmares about getting a shot a lot,” he said. “But I just look at it like that’s part of what I’ve got to carry now. I carry my PTSD like I carry my blindness. It’s just part of what it had to be, unfortunately.”

Marrero said he isn’t “super religious,” but his faith has grown stronger after what he’s been through. It’s helped him forgive the man who irrevocably altered his life.

“I truly forgive him, and I truly want him to change his life,” he said. “I hope nothing but good things for him. I don’t want to have a talk with him, but he doesn’t have to hear it from me. I just know I do.”