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'We need more things like this': Inside the non-profit café employing staff with learning difficulties

PUBLISHED: 12:19 25 July 2019 | UPDATED: 12:29 25 July 2019

Service with a smile. Staff at Compass Cafe, based in Lowestoft library, where workers with learning difficulties and autism are supported by key staff. Picture: Neil Didsbury

Service with a smile. Staff at Compass Cafe, based in Lowestoft library, where workers with learning difficulties and autism are supported by key staff. Picture: Neil Didsbury

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A Suffolk café has been successfully helping adults with learning difficulties to pick up life skills they need to live independently.

Bernie McDonald who has Down Syndrome is the expert coffee maker at Compass Cafe in Lowestoft. Picture: Neil DidsburyBernie McDonald who has Down Syndrome is the expert coffee maker at Compass Cafe in Lowestoft. Picture: Neil Didsbury

The workers at the Compass Café, based at Lowestoft Library, all have complex needs or learning difficulties such as down syndrome and autism.

David Barber, team manager of the café operated by East Anglian charity Leading Lives, said: "As you can see, they're serving the public and doing their job like anybody else would do in the catering industry.

"We try and give people the opportunities to have the life they choose.

The Compass Cafe in Lowestoft library is successfully run by staff with learning difficulties and autism. Picture: Neil DidsburyThe Compass Cafe in Lowestoft library is successfully run by staff with learning difficulties and autism. Picture: Neil Didsbury

"With a limited amount of places for work experience we decided to open our own café here in the library to give people a real opportunity to have a real work experience."

But the café is about a lot more than just getting its learners into paid work, though some have progressed on to work in places like Tesco.

Hannah Gardiner, a support worker at the Compass Café, says: "Over time we realised it's better for so many more reasons. We had one customer who, when they first came in could hardly speak, he now stands at the till and serves.

Bernie McDonald and Stuart Ward have both worked at Compass Cafe since its inception three years ago. Picture: Neil DidsburyBernie McDonald and Stuart Ward have both worked at Compass Cafe since its inception three years ago. Picture: Neil Didsbury

"It's good for life skills. Some people who would never normally use public transport now use the bus by themselves to get here. The learners do all the jobs themselves, we just support them.

"It's a really good confidence builder. We need more things around here like this for people who have got disabilities."

Skills learned in the café help the workers in their everyday lives.

Sue Pearce and David Barber manage the team at Compass cafe in Lowestoft, who are made up of individuals with learning difficulties and autism. Picture: Neil DidsburySue Pearce and David Barber manage the team at Compass cafe in Lowestoft, who are made up of individuals with learning difficulties and autism. Picture: Neil Didsbury

Stuart Ward, 41, has worked at the café since it opened three years ago. He said: "My favourite job is serving food to people, drinks and all that, and being nice to customers. We're just getting on with the job and doing it, that's how a café works.

"You have to muck in and join in and do what has got to be done. I've been here three years now, and it's really nice here. I've met new people who I've never met before."

All profits from the café go back into the charity Leading Lives.

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