Today, Monday 21 March marks the 11th anniversary of World Down Syndrome day. The theme this year is one of inclusion.
“To live, work and participate with confidence and autonomy, fully included in society, in their communities, alongside their families, co-workers, friends and peers.” (World Down Syndrome Day )
In the lead up to today, CoorDown Onlus (Coordinator of Italian Associations of people with Down syndrome) collaborated with Saatchi & Saatchi to release the short online film “How do You See Me”. Starring Olivia Wilde, this film aims to highlight the way people with Down Syndrome view themselves, versus the way they are perceived by society. A somewhat controversial ad, it has received both positive and negative feedback.
Inspired by the short film and the theme of inclusion, we turned to a local business – Brownies & Downies. A coffee shop that is carving a meaningful space for people with Down Syndrome in the working world.
Located in Long Street, Cape Town, Brownies & Downies is a coffee shop with a difference. This non-for-profit coffee shop, opened its doors in February this year. It trains and employs intellectually young adults with special needs. These range from Down Syndrome, Autism and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.
The idea comes from the original Brownies & Downies coffee chain in the Netherlands. Founded by a chef and special needs school teacher, they wanted to create job opportunities in hospitality for people with disabilities. Since its inception in 2010, it has grown to 30 stores in the Netherlands.
The concept was brought to South Africa by Wendy Vermeulen. Wendy arrived in South Africa from the Netherlands in 2010 for a social work internship. During that time she saw a huge gap in employment opportunities for intellectually disabled people. Once they completed schooling at 18 years old what could they do? Along with that, she saw how the public viewed them. She saw the misplaced fears and assumptions they had about interacting with people with special needs.
Wendy’s mission in opening Brownies & Downies was;
“To improve the quality of life for the intellectually challenged; and to change the South African societal views and acceptance of these individuals in society”.
Last week, we spoke to Wendy about Brownies & Downies, what they’ve accomplished and her hopes for the future.
Aside from Wendy, all the front-end staff has special needs. At present, they are training 25 young adults, with plans on taking on new employees through paid learnerships.
Choosing the Long Street location was strategic. Wendy wanted to position Brownies & Downies in a high foot traffic area surrounded by businesses. Knowing the prejudices people with special needs are exposed to, Wendy was uncertain to how they would receive this new coffee shop and treat the employees. According to Wendy, the response has been overwhelmingly positive with many large companies bringing their employees in for a lunch and to raise greater awareness.
Whilst changing people’s perceptions was a goal, perhaps an even greater goal was to give those with intellectual disabilities a chance to find meaningful work, independence and a better quality of life.
The biggest testament to that goal, has been the change in these young adults as they are trained and begin working. Wendy speaks about a renewed sense of purpose giving these young adults a boost of confidence and happiness.
It is not just Wendy who has picked up on that. After doing skills development training with a special needs school, the student’s teachers came to visit them at Brownies & Downies. All of them were amazed by the difference in the students, calling them “new people” full of confidence and purpose.
What Wendy has done, is given these young adults their first taste of employment. This employment is one that they can be proud, of as shown in this now viral Facebook post, posted by Bruce Muller (a cousin of one of the Brownies & Downies employees).
“So proud of my cousin and his first job! Please support this fantastic initiative if you’re in the Long Street area – it is a restaurant and coffee shop that provides workplace training and employment for young adults with down syndrome and other learning disablitilies”. – Bruce Muller
Asked of her proudest moment, Wendy recalls a worker coming up to her to say “Thank you Wendy. I am so happy to work here. Because finally someone accepts me for who I am”.
In a world in which we are so busy trying to fit into a mould, Wendy is giving people a place to be themselves and to be appreciated for being who they are, through inclusion.
Of the future, Wendy says she hopes to expand Brownies and Downies to more locations around South Africa within the next 6 months to one year.
Want to Get involved in Brownies and Downies?
Be a Patron: Next time you’re in Cape Town’s CBD, stop by Brownies and Downies and have a cup of coffee and their famous brownies. (Shop 7, 2 Long Street, Cape Town)
Sponsor an adult: Directly help a young adult by sponsoring their training needs, transportation or food costs.
Donate: Donate funds, equipment or services.
Spread the word: Share this article and the Brownies and Downies message.
Refer: Know of a young adult, who is 15 years or older, mid-high functioning that would be great for Brownies and Downies? Email Wendy at [email protected]
For more details visit http://browniesdownies.co.za
Zissy is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to make things, do things and wear things.