Bakery empowers special needs staff

Flour Power employee Judd Christian Coyuco, who has ASD, packs cookies while Ms Lena Ng (at right) attends to a customer.
Flour Power employee Judd Christian Coyuco, who has ASD, packs cookies while Ms Lena Ng (at right) attends to a customer.PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

In fast-paced Singapore, there are those in need - and those who go out of their way to meet those needs. This is the latest in a series on noteworthy causes that The Straits Times is spotlighting.

It is a Tuesday morning and Judd Christian Coyuco puts on his apron and washes his hands before he greets his supervisor.

Judd, a bespectacled 18-year-old, pauses briefly as he gingerly measures scoops of cocoa powder to be added to the brownie mixture.

A seemingly mundane routine for many, but one that has taken him a few weeks to master.

Born in the Philippines, Judd was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of six. He now lives in Singapore as a permanent resident and has three other siblings. His mum works at the bakery too while his father is currently working in the Philippines.

ASD refers to a range of developmental disorders where individuals experience difficulty in socialising and communicating with others. It is estimated that one out of 150 children here have some form of ASD.

Four people, including Judd, are employed at Flour Power, a local social enterprise at Kaki Bukit Recreation Centre that seeks to empower individuals challenged with special needs by equipping them with baking and other occupational skills.The bakery, which operates between Monday and Friday from 10.30am to 3pm, trains employees to bake an assortment of confectioneries such as chiffon cakes, muffins and cookies.

They are also taught to package the baked goods and assist the owners in external bake sale events and roadshows.

Established in April last year by former corporate marketer Lena Ng, 38, the bakery also organises regular baking classes for students aged nine to 12 at the Grace Orchard School - which caters to those with mild intellectual disability and mild autism.

Said Ms Ng: "We train kids (aged 18 and older) with special needs to bake so that they will have skills that can be used in the food and beverage industry, and find jobs that will give them a sustainable future."

Mr Choo Jun Wei, a high-functioning 21-year-old with ASD who has worked at Flour Power for the past nine months, said he initially found the work challenging, but has since adapted to the rigour of its demands. "Baking is something that was quite different compared with what I learnt previously in school, and I took a while to learn to do the calculations and measurements needed to prepare the baking ingredients," said the Institute of Technical Education graduate.

Parents of the employees were heartened by the marked improvement their children have shown in their interpersonal and workplace skills since they began their short stints at the bakery. Most work there for a few months as a "transitional workplace".

Said Mrs Mildred Coyuco, 50, Judd's mother: "He has learnt to be more resilient, patient and obedient which is very important because compliance is needed in any workplace... He is also able to bake without much supervision now."

After returning from a six-month self-funded volunteer expedition to Thailand and Cambodia in 2011, Ms Ng was inspired to make a mark in the local special needs community.

She had taught basic English to children from the ages of seven to 15 in rural villages that lacked access to basic necessities such as running water and electricity.

"When I came back (from Thailand and Cambodia), I realised there was this gap in Singapore's social fabric where it's difficult for kids above the age of 18 with special needs to find employment, and most just stay at home. I thought then maybe I should help these fellow Singaporeans before helping others overseas," she added.

Ms Serene Mok, 47, a Flour Power business partner, said: "I always tell (the employees) whatever you learn here is not solely job-specific; it's always about how such lessons can be applied to life."

Exposure to real-life social interactions gleaned from such employment opportunities would help those with special needs to better integrate into mainstream society, experts said.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist in private practice, said: "Apart from teaching important vocational and workplace skills, such opportunities also serve as an important platform in training individuals to socialise with customers and colleagues... which are not readily available in sheltered environments like schools and vocational training institutions."

But it has not been all plain sailing for the bakery.

Ms Ng, who had no prior experience in running a social enterprise, said it was initially difficult to establish brand awareness and generate sales of its baked goods.

"One of the first hurdles that we faced as a social enterprise was to get our name out there and overcome the misconception that social enterprises tend to sell lousier food of sub-par quality," the self-taught baker said.

Flour Power also had to contend with negative stereotypes commonly faced by individuals with special needs. One particular incident in July last year left an indelible imprint on Ms Ng.

"I was training one of my employees to serve coffee to a female customer and he accidentally spilt a single drop of coffee on her shoes and she flew into a huge rage and yelled, 'Why don't you keep them in the back where they belong?'," she recounted.

While such unsavoury sentiments persist, they are held by a minority here. A growing number of companies and employers are increasingly receptive to hiring those with special needs, said Ms Ng.

"The long-term goal (for Flour Power) is to start a few kitchens that the kids can helm together with their families where they can do some simple baking.

"I just want them to experience having ownership of their own stalls and to bring home whatever money that they make from selling these baked goods," she added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2017, with the headline 'Bakery empowers special needs staff'. Print Edition | Subscribe