When young people with developmental disabilities graduate from school, they not only lose the structure of their daily routine but they also lose the ongoing social contact that comes with being in a school community. In the small rural town of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, four sets of parents worried about the social isolation that their children would face after high school graduation. They also worried about what kinds of businesses would recognize their children’s potential for acquiring new skills and give them a chance at a real job.
But instead of getting stuck in their worries, these parents took action. They banded together and envisioned a business that would not only use their children’s skills but would also help to integrate them into the community. From their imaginings and early conversations in 2007, COCO Café was born. The café, which opened its doors in 2011, is a co-op model social enterprise, owned by the community.
In the early days of the café, the parents worked together and helped to teach their sons and daughters about the different jobs that are part of running a café, including food prep, dish washing and table service. After two years of operation, with the café steadily increasing its business, it was clear that they needed someone with a background in the restaurant business to take over. They hired Melanie Cadden, who came with 15 years of restaurant experience to take over as general manager.
Under Cadden’s guidance, the café expanded to include a full service catering business that has been used for many weddings and big parties in the area. “The catering part of the business has really allowed us to diversify,” Cadden says. “We have employees who really enjoy going to different locations around the area to work events. We have been able to hire more people as a result of the catering that we do. And it’s feel-good catering — when people hire us for their wedding, they like that they are supporting our mission.”
Each year that COCO Café has been in business it has been able to expand its hiring; it now has 33 employees, 15 of whom have developmental disabilities including Down syndrome, autism and intellectual disabilities. It also has a number of volunteers who like to come in and help with baking, cooking and general help in the café.
In 2015, COCO Café piloted its first training program. It created a three-month opportunity in which people with disabilities could come in and try out different jobs at the café, with plenty of coaching and support. They had three people in the first training session had three participants and it has been repeated successfully this year. “The training is a great expansion for us,” Cadden explains. “More people can learn life skills like cooking and baking and social interactions and see if they like this kind of work.” While the café can’t hire all of the graduates from the training program, it does help the graduates create resumes and provide references to prospective employers.
Cadden notices how the employees who have worked at the café for several years continue to grow, learn and take on more responsibility by their own initiative. She recalls one young woman, a baker at the café, who was part of the first training group. “The other day I saw her come out front and look at the bakery case and I asked her what she was looking at,” Cadden says. “She said she was taking inventory so they would know in the back how many muffins and other pastries to make. We never taught her to do that — she’s taken on ownership of her job.”