Hundreds of disabled youngsters in the North East will be helped by an ambitious move by children’s charity Smile For Life.
Smile For Life transformed its small Gosforth office on Ashburton Road into Café Beam four years ago to give real-life work experience to students with disabilities.
Since then more than 250 placements have been taken up by students who work shifts serving customers, handling cash and training as baristas – providing them with new skills and confidence before entering the world of work.
The placements have been such a success that the charity is moving to bigger premises at the old Fire Station on Gosforth High Street, to treble the amount of opportunities it can offer from 60 to 180 per year.
Paula Gascoigne, chief executive of Smile For Life, said: “This has been our long-term dream and last year we decided to go for it! We had a break-clause in our lease in April so the race was on to find new premises by then.
“We found the old Fire Station and it was just perfect – the right location, affordable and full of character. I am over the moon that it has finally happened, and we can start putting these plans into practice.”
Paula opened Café Beam after learning that only seven per cent of young people with disabilities leave education and go on to supported employment. The mission for Smile For Life is to change that.
She added: “Working with different educational providers we saw there was a gap when young people with disabilities and learning difficulties leave education – they had so little experience and options. This was the message that we were getting time after time.
“Since opening Café Beam four years ago, the confidence and skills that these young people take with them is phenomenal, it literally changes their lives. There was so much demand, we have waiting lists for placements and are just full to capacity. We also wanted to offer a wider range of placements and so had to look for new premises.
“The future is very exciting for us and we want our move to benefit so many more young people across the region. Café Beam will be staffed by people with disabilities, from the kitchen preparing the best quality food for customers, to working front of house.
“The new café will rival any high street offering, with only the best ingredients and produce being sold to our customers.”
The new Café Beam is planned to open in September and work is underway to convert the big office space into a new kitchen, café and office space for the charity’s staff.
The ambitious plan is part of the charity’s campaign #EmpowerAndEmploy, aiming to improve understanding of people with disabilities and to encourage employers to create roles for them.
Currently just 23.9% of people of working age with a learning difficulty are in employment nationally, while the North East has the second-lowest employment rate for disabled people in the UK.
The campaign is in line with the Government’s pledge to get one million disabled people into work over the next 10 years.