Raffles Institution

A bold purpose behind My Nonna's

The founder of My Nonna's, Ms Geraldine Tan, outside her stall in the Raffles Institution canteen. Stall assistant Goh Wei Ting (at the counter) says she enjoys cooking for the students.
The founder of My Nonna's, Ms Geraldine Tan, outside her stall in the Raffles Institution canteen. Stall assistant Goh Wei Ting (at the counter) says she enjoys cooking for the students.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

It serves up value-for-money Italian favourites at a modest canteen stall in Raffles Institution (RI).

But My Nonna's, which started operating in RI five months ago, serves a bold purpose - it provides culinary training and employment to people with special needs, such as autism, intellectual impairments and physical disabilities.

Ms Geraldine Tan, founder and chief executive officer of My Nonna's, said: "Besides giving them a job, it also builds their self-esteem and independence. They also get a chance to interact with others."

Running a stall with special needs employees is challenging, admitted Ms Tan, who is in her 40s. "It takes time and patience. It can take some of them a few months to learn. They have to be taught step by step. Italian fare is structured, so it is easier to teach them the steps."

The stall, which offers about 20 food items, is known for its flavourful oven-baked pasta dishes, such as spicy tuna and creamy mushroom baked pastas. It also offers other items, including quesadillas. The items cost between $1.50 and $3.

"We started off with the basic pasta range, and we realised that the oven-baked pasta dishes were popular among students. Slowly, we added more items," said Ms Tan.

"To them, it is like comfort food."

Ms Tan is not stopping there.

She plans to add more items, such as pizzas and tiramisu. "It is good that students have a variety of items to choose from. If they like something, they will come back."

The social enterprise runs similar stalls in three other schools. Each stall employs about two assistants with special needs, and at least one able-bodied stall manager.

Stall assistant Goh Wei Ting, 28, who has an intellectual disability, has worked with My Nonna's for two years. She enjoys learning how to prepare items such as waffles, as well as cooking for the students.

Ms Tan said her stalls allow students to interact with her team of young adults with special needs.

"The students will be able to understand people with special needs, so they will have no issues working with them in future. When they become employers, they can help design jobs to allow those with special needs to integrate into society."

Year 5 RI student Zara Karimi, 17, frequents the stall for its waffles. She said by doing so, she also gets to help the disadvantaged.

"People with special needs are part of our society, and we should give them our support," she said.

Calvin Yang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'A bold purpose behind My Nonna's'. Print Edition | Subscribe