Every village needs a café!

I’ve been exploring how we can support young people with special needs find their “village” – the people and “stuff” around us who hold us up, nurture us and sustain us in endless, connected small ways.

Housing developments, business zones and shopping centres don’t automatically make a community, even though they emerge and spread rapidly. Villages, too, slowly grow in the mind and heart, across time and space and all the social and economic elements that gradually interlace, if you give them a helping hand. But you have to start your village somewhere. And what better place to start with in Melbourne than a café? Here, over both sides of the counter, we create and strengthen bonds and provide purpose and direction.

 My daughter helps out for a short time once a week at a café close to her day program. Although helping to put away tables and chairs is a small contribution in terms of time and effort, she gets a lot out of it. She is – and sees herself as – part of the team. She’s doing something independently to help others and learning skills which she can use elsewhere.

From my perspective, she’s out in the community, learning to manage the sensory and social implications of this. In addition, she’s learning to take directions from people other than her parents. This is significant for a young woman whose autism and need for routine can make this extremely challenging. For instance “only Mum” can do her hair, although Dad is just as capable!

Finally, I strongly believe that there’s also a greater community benefit. People who otherwise have little or no interaction with special needs see our young people out there among them, doing what they themselves do.

It normalises something which should be normal, but typically, has not been.

Chancez Café

Making the most of a hiatus between one job and the next, and some welcome winter sunshine, my husband and I went for a stroll in an area of parkland that we’d never explored before. On the way back, nature called. My roving eyes spotted the necessary facilities beside a playground with the delightful name ‘Possum’s Hollow’.

Even more delightfully, there was a café next door. Perfect!

It was definitely time for a drink. As we went up to the window, I sensed there was something a little different about some of the helpers at the café. I was right.

Special needs work leisure community

Feeding and coffeeing up the public, building the village one excellent coffee and biscuit at a time.

The café is run by Araluen, an organisation which supports adults with special needs, with the support of Banyule council. That day, there were two Araluen clients, with two support workers.  The patience, care and respect shown to the young trainees was so encouraging, and a welcome panacea at a time when all too often it’s the bad news stories about abuse of the vulnerable that get traction in the media.

I was so excited by our find, not to mention the great coffee and their delicious home-made biscuits. So the next day, I made an hour-long round trip to take my mum out for a visit. We got chatting to one of the support workers, and found out this this is one of five cafes run by Araluen. This one is used as a training café.

Special needs work leisure community

Enquire within!! 😀

This seemed to be an ideal set-up for a training café:

  • It’s small, which necessarily limits the number of people that can be there at any one time. This minimises some of the sensory challenges that a larger working environment creates.
  • It’s next to a playground, so a wide variety of people would access the café. This creates the opportunities for the very young, the very old and everyone in between to interact with the young workers there – my point about normalising special needs.
  • The spelling “Chancez” cleverly acknowledges its purpose (supporting training for special needs people while fulfilling popular demand for coffee in recreational settings) without hitting you over the head with it.

The cafe was small, simple and functional. It seems to have made the best of its lovely parkland environment. Importantly, it has a great vibe. I’m sure this was thanks to the friendly staff within and the keen trainees, just as much as (if not more than) the food on offer. People will go out of their way for a lovely atmosphere but run a mile from surly, indifferent staff.

 Transferrable skills

The support workers were very enthusiastic about the café and its benefits.

They were particularly keen on the fact that their young people were learning skills they could use in other places and spaces, and on the opportunity that the café created for interaction with the broader community. It’s just the sort of place I’d love my daughter to find a home with – challenging enough for her to extend herself, but supportive enough that it’s not too daunting. In other words, the Goldilocks zone of “proximal development”.

Let’s support those who support us

At this stage, Chancez Café at Possum Hollow is open Monday to Thursday, from 10:00 am  to 2:00 pm. If you live out that way, and happen to have a free lunchtime or a morning off work, I encourage you to find it and have a drink. We need to support those who support the special people in our lives.

But don’t just support it because of that.

Our café sector is brutally, punishingly competitive. We’re not doing any favours to our special needs community members if we don’t hold these enterprises to the same high standards we have of other businesses. Being a strong businesses means the cafe in our ‘village’ stays for the long haul. And that means special needs people get a solid chance to build their future at work and leisure among us.

Their village. Our village.

Until next time, Happy Wombatting!

Chancez Café, Possum Hollow, 44 Beverley Road, Heidelberg.