Cafe sparks cheer for young people with autism

As the mother of an 18-year-old with autism, Monica Marchi understands the importance of appropriate work experience. In her son’s case, he was keen to try catering and because she was volunteering for a community cafe, it seemed like the perfect idea.

But thinking about it more deeply, it dawned on her that this could be a fantastic opportunity for young people with autism in general – not just her son alone. 

So she spoke to the staff and volunteers at the Gardener Cafe in Brighton where she volunteered, suggesting they dedicate one day a week to training children and teenagers with autism.

They loved the idea and teamed up with a parent-led support network called mASCOT to spread the word. Together they launched mASCOT Mondays, a day when any young people with autism can visit the cafe to contribute to the usual cafe work. 

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The children enjoyed the experience thoroughly and it quickly grew in popularity. Monica tells Smiley News: “Young people get the benefit of work experience and a number of parents come and volunteer because it’s a good way for them to network.”

About five young people visit each week to help with food preparation, cleaning and serving customers.

Monica explains: “Some don’t want any contact with the public. So they are happier doing food preparation or washing up. Others don’t like the sensory feeling of cleaning and they prefer contact with customers. So we really try to accommodate for the young people’s preferences.” 

She’s seen how young people return week after week despite having no obligation to do so. They understand how this will benefit their job prospects with a young volunteer named George saying how brilliant it looks on his CV.

For parents, it’s an effective way to connect and share ideas for how best to care for their children. 

“I know having a child with a disability can be quite isolating sometimes,” Monica remarks. 

The cafe helps overcome this isolation by hosting mASCOT coffee mornings when parents get a chance to catch up in the morning before the cafe opens to the public.

Additionally, the Gardener tackles food waste by redirecting surplus supermarket food away from going to landfill sites. 

Founded by nationwide food waste project The Real Junk Food Project, it provides food and drinks to disadvantaged people on a pay-as-you-feel basis. 

These more inclusive prices open the space up to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to eat out. In doing so, the cafe helps tackle the issue of loneliness in the local community. 

“We have lots of returning customers, quite a few of whom are not only homeless but also socially isolated. For them this place has become almost like their second home,” Monica explains.

MASCOT Monday runs from 11am to 3pm every Monday. Find the Gardener Cafe at 50 Gardner Street, Brighton.

Inspired to act?

DONATE: To overcome the challenges of food waste and social isolation, donate to The Real Junk Food Project.

SUPPORT: Help tackle food waste in Brighton and keep the Gardener Cafe running by volunteering for The Real Junk Food Project.