Causes

Cafe friendly to customers, staff who use wheelchairs

Ms Geraldine Tan, CEO of social enterprise My NoNNa's, with chef Jasmine Ho (in black), who works in My NoNNa's Wheelchair Workplace Friendly Cafe at SUTD. The cafe was designed by Ms Tan and seven SUTD students as part of their final-year project.
Ms Geraldine Tan, CEO of social enterprise My NoNNa's, with chef Jasmine Ho (in black), who works in My NoNNa's Wheelchair Workplace Friendly Cafe at SUTD. The cafe was designed by Ms Tan and seven SUTD students as part of their final-year project.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

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 The Straits Times is spotlighting.

After a botched operation to relieve chronic back pain last March left her needing a wheelchair, chef Jasmine Ho wondered if she would ever work again.

She had 30 years of experience as a home economics teacher and a pastry chef .

But the 51-year-old was left without any sensation in her limbs - and bleak prospects in the workforce - because of a spinal bacterial infection caused by an improperly sterilised rod inserted into her back.

She returned to her job as a home economics assistant at Assumption English School, but resigned after a month. "The classes were on the third floor and I had to take the lift up. One day, the lift broke down and I did not want to inconvenience others, so I quit," she said.

Ms Ho tried looking for other jobs, but many were not wheelchair-friendly.

Then came an Italian cafe at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs in the customer area and in the kitchen. About three months later, SPD, an organisation that helps integrate people with disabilities back into society, put Ms Ho in touch with the cafe.

In November, eight months after her operation, she was back at work as a chef, thanks to My NoNNa's Wheelchair Workplace Friendly Cafe. She said she enjoys it even though it can be busy and tiring during peak periods as she is the only chef at the outlet.

The cafe was designed by Ms Geraldine Tan, chief executive of social enterprise My NoNNa's, and a group of seven SUTD students as part of their final-year project.

Ms Tan, who is in her 40s, set up My NoNNa's in 2015 with a mission to provide meaningful employment to people with special needs. There are two other outlets - in Raffles Institution and Nanyang Girls' High School - and they hire special-needs employees as well.

Ms Ho is the only employee who uses a wheelchair.

Ms Tan started My NoNNa's after working for 22 years in the management industry.

"But at a certain stage in your life... you have to do something more meaningful, so I finally took the leap of faith," she said.

She was inspired to create the cafe after she saw a man in a wheelchair at a hawker centre serving coffee. Ms Tan approached SUTD with the idea to create a cafe suitable for kitchen and service staff who needed wheelchairs. She said a wall and some cabinets in the kitchen were demolished to provide an open space. Workstations were lowered and a ramp created.

The team also created an automated machine that cooks pasta in boiling water.

Customers dine at trapezium-shaped tables designed to accommodate wheelchair users.

SUTD student Toh Hui Wen, 23, said she leapt at the opportunity to be part of the project.

"I saw that it was a good chance to apply what we had learnt in school to a real-life situation that could help to benefit the community," said Ms Toh, now an architectural designer.

Planning started in end-2016 and renovation works began in September last year. The cafe was fully operational in November, with Ms Ho in the kitchen.

Ms Tan spent almost $50,000 of her own money for the renovation because she could not secure funding. "If chef Jasmine cooks something she has never made before, she develops a sense of pride. And that is something that provides meaning to my life," she said.

She also allocates time for Ms Ho to stretch and move around with the help of a walking frame while at work.

Ms Tan plans to hire two more employees with special needs for the SUTD outlet this month. It currently has three employees, including Ms Ho.

Popular dishes at My NoNNa's include oven-baked pastas, cheesy quesadilla and Italian roast chicken with spaghetti. Main courses at the SUTD outlet start from $5.50 for SUTD students and $6 for the public.

Mr Teoh Teik Toe, 50, visits the cafe at least three times a week.

"The food is nice, the price is cheap and the service is efficient," said Mr Teoh, who is an associate programme director at SUTD.

Ms Tan's ultimate goal is to employ 100 people with special needs. She said others can help with simple acts. "You may not have the patience to look after them, but come buy a cup of coffee and that helps."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2018, with the headline 'Cafe friendly to customers, staff who use wheelchairs '. Print Edition | Subscribe