Published: 05:00, 18 October 2021
With just 6% of adults with learning disabilities nationally finding paid employment, support for these young people making the transition from education to work is more vital than ever.
To help those making this leap, the Beacon Plus programme has opened a new café where young adults from across East Kent can develop the skills and confidence to succeed, as Rhys Griffiths reports.
Stepping into Abercrombie's, on the corner of Tontine Street and Dover Road opposite the F51 skate park in Folkestone, one is welcomed by the sights and sounds common to any thriving town centre café.
The murmur of people chatting over a cuppa, front of house calling back and forth to the kitchen, a line-up of delicious-looking cakes adorning the counter.
But this is also a place with a purpose. All the staff running this community café are young people with learning disabilities, aged 19 to 25, who are gaining vital experience as they seek to find their way into work after leaving full-time education.
Based in the building of mental health charity South Kent Mind, the new business is the creation of Beacon Plus, a scheme based at Folkestone Business Hub in West Terrace which supports learners from towns across East Kent as they gain work experience and the skills needed to find full-time employment.
For Jamie Sinden, a 20-year-old from St Mary's Bay, it's not just about developing himself - but also providing a destination people want to come back to time and time again.
"We really want to give everyone the best experience ever so they come back, because happy customers make us happy," he explained as he took a break from serving guests at the official opening of the café.
"I enjoy working here, it's helped me with my confidence, talking to people, my cooking skills, and serving."
Beacon Plus is run in partnership with The Beacon School in Folkestone, which caters for more than 300 pupils aged 3-19 who have a range of complex needs requiring specialist education.
The programme's stated aim is to "increase the opportunities to access employment and develop skills for independent adulthood for a range of young adults whose statutory education was within a specialist setting".
Teaching assistant Jason Farley, who has worked to establish the café and on-site bakery with colleague Charlotte Henderson, explained why this type of project can be transformational for the young learners they work with.
"We have had some learners come in and it's taken them six months just to be able to talk to us," he said. "And then obviously when they are out into the community they have to talk to people.
"The difference between them coming in September and them in December is amazing. And if you look to the future, and you see the difference when we break up for the summer holidays, they are completely different people, in all the right ways.
"It's amazing to see. And that's one of the reasons I love my job. It's so rewarding."
The community café will be open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays, serving hot drinks, sweet treats and hot meals, with four of the young learners staffing the business at any one time.
Fridays are baking day for the bakery, which initially is making loaves for staff at The Beacon School, but eventually the aim is to scale it up so that bread is sold to the local community too.
Jason said: "On a Thursday we are baking and we are running the café as well, so what we do is we make the dough for Friday and then my team we have on a Friday come in and they just basically make bread from 10am to 2.30pm.
"And then they deliver, I have couple of my learners go over to The Beacon and they deliver to colleagues there. Hopefully we are trying to get the word out so that we can have the community come in and hopefully buy bread too."
When talking to Jamie, who beams with pride at what has been achieved so far, you can see immediately what a difference the project is making for learners like him.
"It makes me feel good, and as I said it has helped a lot with confidence," he said.
"Doing the bakery side on Fridays, making the bread and making the dough, even though it can be a bit tricky, I do enjoy it.
"It is very important, especially after the last 18 months, it's been very isolating..."
"I help on the business side of the bakery, with the money and making shopping lists, which has helped me with my maths.
"I used to struggle with maths, but it's helped me so much. The bread is lovely, it is proper handmade, it's just delicious, really good.
"The smell just draws you in. I just love working here, its a wonderful experience."
Giving these young people the chance to work together as a team, and interact with the paying public, is all the more important after the pandemic and a series of lockdowns which restricted their ability to build relationships face-to-face.
The skills they are developing will also help them adapt successfully when they do move on to employment elsewhere.
"It's important because they get to see how a business is run," Jason said.
"They get to know the community, which some of them find it very hard to do - talking to to people that they don't know. But they need to talk to people they don't know because it's their business, I'm just here to make sure everything is OK. It's their business and they have to do the work.
"It is very important, especially after the last 18 months, it's been very isolating, so it's brilliant that they have come in and they love being here."